Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Tale of Two Toms: When Wolf Hall became alternative history

Judging from the comments of the fandom of Wolf Hall (and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies,) about 70% of its readers believe the book portrays true events. They perceive Thomas Cromwell as a good person who struggled to avenge his friends and who maintained a perpetual war against his wicked queen and the infamous Thomas More. Four chapters of a six-episode TV adaptation have been devoted to the Cromwell-More feud, thus summarizing Mr. Secretary’s life into a tale of Good Tom vs Bad Tom. Was all that libelous mud-slinging necessary to upgrade the villain? This goes beyond literary license; Dame Hilary Mantel has written alternative history, but has failed to advertise it as such.

Granted, Anne Boleyn fought against the Lord Chancellor, and Thomas More became a big pain in King Harry’s fat arse.  Cromwell had to “fix” them, but until the very end, there was no personal animosity there. And yet “Wolf Hall”—and the books that inspire the series— depict Anne and More to be scum, deserving to be boiled alive like crabs. We are meant to clap when they finally get their comeuppance. “The Tudors,” while not turning a blind eye to Anne and Thomas More’s flaws and dark records, still managed to show us their virtues, and their humanity. In the book Wolf Hall, Anne lacks qualities and More’s achievements are transferred to Cromwell!

A Different TomKat
In the series, when Cromwell’s wife mentions that Queen Catherine is still sewing shirts for her unfaithful husband, Good Tom mutters that if he were the queen he would leave the needle stuck on the cloth. Later, there is a scene where Cromwell tells Henry he opposes the king’s divorce. This is all very nice, but there is no historical evidence that Cromwell gave two hoots about Catherine. He was instrumental in the Spanish queen’s downfall and degradation. He did everything in his power to push Catherine and her daughter away from the throne, the court and Henry’s good will. I can admire and respect Dame Hilary’s attempts to portray Cromwell as somewhat sympathetic to Catherine and Mary’s plight, but I abhor that in doing so, she pulls off feathers from More’s tail to pin them on her protagonist’s backside.

There is no mention in” Wolf Hall” of Saint Thomas’ devotion to Catherine of Aragon. Among the charges against him, in real life, was keeping contact with her and favoring an imperial invasion of England. By the time of Bad Tom’s arrest, Queen Catherine was kept incommunicado, not even allowed to see her only child. ‘But it could be possible that More did correspond secretly with her.

Part of More’s refusal to accept the Oath of Supremacy was to protect Catherine and to uphold the rights of her only daughter to the throne. Although I would not go as far as the “TomKat” shipping and think there was a secret romance between the mistreated Catherine and her most loyal supporter, Saint Thomas felt great sympathy towards a woman he recognized as his only queen. He had seen Catherine when she arrived in England, still an adolescent, to marry the Prince of Wales. In his writings, he praises her beauty and charm. Like most Britons of his day, he grew to admire a sovereign that was not only charitable to the people, but a vigorous regent as well.
Catherine in her adolescence

 By legitimizing Henry’s new marriage to Anne Boleyn, both The Oath of Supremacy and The Act of the Succession nullified the king’s previous union. We must not see this as a modern divorce, its repercussions were much too weightier. The acts were a declaration of Catherine’s mendacity and whorish ways. To marry Henry, she had falsely affirmed to be a virgin, she had indulged in carnal relationships with a man who was not her husband, she had given birth to a bastard daughter. Thomas More could not abide by such injustice so he refused to accept that Catherine’s marriage to Henry had been annulled.

Catherine pleading to Henry 

The Family Men
Cromwell kitty-lover

In real life, the two Toms shared much in common, but Wolf Hall goes through pains to show their circumstances are different. They were both self-made men, shrewd lawyers, polyglots, believers in the education of women, doting fathers, animal-lovers and worried about the corruption of the Catholic Church. All these traits were stressed by Mantel in her conception of Good Tom, but shadowed or adulterated for the fabrication of Bad Tom.
More, bunny-lover

I’m fond of Anton “Qyburn” Lesser, but he was Thomas More’s antithesis, even in looks. Most people think of St. Thomas as the likeness Holbein has given us and that I have seen from close range at The Frick Collection. There is another portrait of More in his youth. Even by today’s standards, he was an attractive man.

By the time, Holbein got hold of More, the sitter was in his fifties, had acquired some facial lines, and put on weight, but you can still see a strong face, intelligent gaze, split chin, long sharp nose, and large dark eyes. This is a far cry from Lesser’s wrinkled face, unkempt appearance, and stringy hair. Lesser plays the saint as cackling old woman, a pedantic bigot, a hypocritical shyster who uses his craft to acquire power and honors and his position to harm others just out of blind fanaticism and sadistic glee. His odious personality affects even his family life.

In “Wolf Hall”, there is a description of a dinner Cromwell shares with the Mores that is an essay in chaos. Even More’s love for animals is used against him. We are subject to a spectacle of bad food, poor company, a buffoon spewing nonsense, pets wandering over the table upsetting the diners, and the drunk hostess embarrassing Cromwell with questions about his sexual life. This revel contradicts the image of Thomas More that we get from his contemporary’s accounts, his own writings and personal correspondence.

It pains me that Cromwell is shown as such an affable man whose house is open to everyone and who cultivates plenty of friends. It pains me more when “Wolf Half” watchers comment that, obviously, Thomas More was a disagreeable man who had no friends. It’s a matter of reading Erasmus’ words describing whom he called “sweetest Thomas”:  "He seems born and framed for friendship,” writes the Dutch philosopher, “and is a most faithful and enduring friend. He is easy of access to all.” Not only did More enjoy the friendship of important people in the Continent, his home in England was lionized by all classes. In fact, King Henry had an unsavory habit of dropping by Beaufort House unannounced (with his entourage in tow) and leave after raiding the Mores’ pantry.

Thomas More reproved the evils of his church but he wished reform to come from within the institution. His distance from Wolsey was motivated by his disapproval of the cardinal’s lax morals not out of opportunism as Cromwell stated in Wolf Hall. At some point in his life, Sir Thomas was attracted to the idea of an English Bible because it would come in handy for his dearest ambition, the education of women. Much has been written of Thomas More’s efforts to educate his brilliant daughter Meg, but they did not stop there.

Aside for tutoring Margaret More Roper, who was one of the brightest women of her age, her father also promoted the learning of languages and other disciplines among his other daughters, Elizabeth and Cicely More; his stepdaughter Alice Middleton, his ward Anne Cresacre who would become his daughter- in-law, and Meg Giggs Clemens, Margaret’s milk sister. He was very close to all of them, particularly to both Megs. Margaret Clemens was the only relative permitted to accompany Saint Thomas to his execution, and she was the one to whom his headless body was given to bury. Of course, none of these intimate details were included in that disastrous depiction of Bad Tom in Wolf Hall.

The "Megs"according to Holbein

On the other hand, although Cromwell is devastated by the death of his legitimate daughters, his paternal love does not reach, Jane, his illegitimate child. While aware of her existence, Mantel refuses to make Jane part of her tale. Would it be because Cromwell’s bastard was a staunch Roman Catholic?

The Heretic Chaser
Michael Hirst was courageous in depicting St. Thomas More as persecuting heretics, but he made a mistake in “The Tudors” when he places Saint Thomas at the burning of Simon Fish. There is no record of the Lord Chancellor attending any execution and Simon Fish died in jail, victim of the bubonic plague. Still there is historical evidence, written accounts by More himself, where he rejoices at the execution of heretics.

Shocking as such accounts are, we must place them in historical context. Prosecution and execution of heretics was state policy. More worked within the perimeters of his country’s legal system. Since 1401, English law considered heresy the worst form of sedition, one punishable by death at the stake.  We cringe at the idea of humans roasted, but it was a time of horrible methods of execution. Heretics and adulteresses were burned, poisoners were boiled alive, and traitors were hanged, drawn and quartered (the latter consisting of castration and removal of bowels and hearts while victims were still conscious.)

Six people were burned under Thomas More’s watch.  Thomas Hitton, Thomas Bilney, Thomas Benet, James Bainham, Richard Baysfield and John Tewksbury. More’s personal involvement in the burning of the last three is a proven fact. He did approve the burning of Hitton, England’s first Reformist martyr, but wrote of Bilney that he was “good, faithful, and virtuously.” More was not beneath recognizing decency in those he sought to repress.

Let us concentrate on More’s main victims:  Tewksbury, Baysfield and Master Bainham, who does figure prominently in “Wolf Hall.” The three men had recanted, fled to the Continent, and then returned to England to continue their public preaching.  To Saint Thomas they represented the worst sort of heretics, those who faked repentance just to go on repeating their offences. They had been shown mercy once and had mocked it. As he said of Baysfield: “He is a dog that returns to his own vomit!”
The burning of Richard Baysfield

Why was Thomas More so vehemently opposed to heresy? Until recently (and not only in Christianity) heresy was considered to imperil the soul of those who upheld it. But, also in the Renaissance, the Protestant heresy could undermine the strength of a nation. As a pacifist, More feared that a religious schism would divide English society and lead to civil war as it happened in the German States and France.

More believed that it was right to extirpate heretic ideas and to put to death those who persisted in preaching them, but he also believed in atonement. While waiting for his trial, he composed A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, praising the relief of penance to avoid Hell. Of the forty heretics arrested during his period as Lord Chancellor, only six went to the fire and three of them had being absolved after recanting.  What about the other 34? Some died, like Simon Fish; John Frith and Thomas Harding went to the stake after More's resignation;  others publicly repented and never relapsed again.

It says a lot about More’s eloquence and convincing powers that so many recanted (even if it was done half-heartedly). And yet there were those like William Roper, Thomas More’s own son-in-law, who sincerely reverted his apostasy, thanks to his beloved father-in-law’s intervention. There is a very odd scene in “Wolf Hall.”  After relapsing into heresy, James Bainham (that Mantel turns into Cromwell’s lawyer and friend) has been rearrested. Good Tom goes to Bad Tom and begs him to intervene by talking to Bainham into recanting again. For the first time, in the story, Cromwell grants More some respect. He praises his convincing powers. We don’t know if More talked to Bainham or refused to do so. All we know is that Bainham was burned and Cromwell held More responsible. This is evident in the most annoying monologue in the series, that unique occasion when Rylance casts aside Cromwell’s poker face and vents out his rightful wrath.
Cromwell and Bainham

Angered by More’s “I do nobody harm” assertion, Cromwell labels him a hypocrite.  “What about Bilney? What about Bainham?” Good Tom roars.  He accuses Bad Tom of racking his barrister so severely he had to be dragged to the scaffold. There seems to be some sequential problems here. According to the series’ chronology, after being tortured (allegedly in More’s home), Bainham recanted and went home. A month later, while attending mass and in full health, he rose and began reading Tyndale’s Bible out loud. He couldn’t have been tortured again, since the procedure for relapsed heretics was to execute them almost immediately. So why accuse More of racking him furtherly?  Simon Bilney did recant after threat of torture, but was never mistreated, His questioning and execution took place in Norwich and was conducted by Bishop Nix. More had little to do with that case.

Dame Hilary Mantel has claimed that a serious historical fiction author should always rely on two different versions of a historical event, yet to fabricate More’s Black Legend she’s trusted only one source:  John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. It is a known fact that Foxe’s report was full of inexactitudes. The author himself recognized that many of his chronicles were based on word of mouth. The mouth in this case belonged to a scoundrel priest named George Constantine who sold protestant books in what we may call today, black market. More apprehended him and kept him prisoner in his gatehouse.

Constantine, who despite his many fibs never accused his jailor of hurting him, spilled the beans on all those he knew to be preaching the New Faith. He denounced Tewksbury, Bayfield and Bainham. Constantine managed to escape from More’s home eliciting from the saint some jocose comments. More said that that obviously, the prisoner had been well fed and treated to have enough energy to break free from the stocks and jump over the garden’s wall.

The fugitive went to the Continent and returned to England after More’s death. He got a job with wretched Henry Norris (one of  Anne Boleyn's alleged lovers). By Elizabeth’s reign, the former priest had become a Catholic denouncer and eventually died on his own bed. In his continental days, Constantine circulated rumors that Thomas More had a tree in his garden where he tied and flogged prisoners. He claimed to have seen Tewksbury and others whipped and tortured. Strange since Constantine had already escaped by the time other prisoners arrived. Bainham and Tewksbury were racked, but this was done at The Tower, and More was not present. Nevertheless, Mantel has her readers believe that Bad Tom had a veritable torture chamber built in his cellar, like we, modern people, have gyms. Let’s grant her that she is good at slandering.

In More’s days, his enemies did spread the story of the flogging tree. Although More was boastful of his execution of heretics, and knew that torture was a proper legal procedure, he refuted such accusations. In his Apology, he explained that on two occasions he had servants caned in his house for misdemeanors dealing with religion That was the extent of physical pain he had inflicted in his life.

Blurring the line between the real and the imaginary, “Wolf Hall” convinces its audience that the real Saint Thomas was a greasy-haired fundamentalist who went around like Lady Melisandre, burning and torturing anybody he disliked. And Dame Hilary has her adepts!

I have run into websites and pages where More is accused of roasting over a hundred heretics and being responsible of burning (alive) William Tyndale! The fact that Tyndale was executed a year after More’s execution,in Belgium, and  that he was strangled and then had his body cast to the flames, makes such assertions risible. Even in the series, Cromwell accuses More of abetting the arrest and execution of Tyndale, whom at the time enjoyed good health. This pantomime throws light on the dangers of speculative fiction, especially if the author swears she has done her homework when it comes to researching historical facts.

The Reluctant Saint
I know that most Wolf Hall’s admirers were thrilled to see Thomas More dragged out of the closet of sainthood. Being Jewish, I am not one to demand his halo to be taken back. Most saints were not very nice people. Saint Cyril abetted the torture and murder of Hypatia; Saint John Chrysostom was a total anti-Semite; Saint Olaf of Norway was a brutal Viking. Thomas More died a martyr’s death protecting the good name and interests of the Catholic Church, therefore he deserves his place on the calendar.

But my admiration for More goes beyond dogma or religion. I admire him for defending the right of the individual to follow his own conscience, for not letting a tyrant bully him, for not taking a silly oath that would declare an ambitious wench a queen while soiling the name of a fine upstanding woman.  None of this is stressed in Wolf Hall.

Good Tom’s crimes
Cromwell’s self-righteous lecture is incongruent to say the least. He did employ torture in several occasions and not only on musician Mark Smeaton. Judging by his behavior towards the Carthusian monks, or those poor souls involved in The Pilgrimage of Grace, it is obvious that Cromwell lived in a glass house. He should abstain from casting stones then! And yet the series still insists on showing him as a peace-loving citizen. The same Cromwell who turned England into a police state!

“Wolf Hall” shows Good Tom “persuading” Smeaton to confess his crime and name his accomplices by using the non-violent method of locking the musician in a dark room. However, tradition tell us that he was savagely tortured.  We have only two sources that described Mark’s torture: Eustace Chapuys’ Spanish Chronicle and the gossipy and unreliable Constantine (who was Henry Norris’ servant.) I believe in the torture tale for two reasons: being lowborn, Mark Smeaton could be tortured and he was the only one of  the accused to admit having a carnal relationship with his queen.

Before Smeaton, Cromwell had other crimes in his villain’s resume such as the undignified execution of The Holy Nun of Kent, and the hanging, drawing and quartering of six Carthusian monks. Prior to their execution, the monks were kept in horrible conditions. They were starved, chained to walls for months, unable to move, swimming in their own filth.  How dare Cromwell lecture More when his own hands were soiled?

And then, of course, are the crimes he would commit later in life, his role in the massacre of The Pilgrimage of Grace’s leaders, including the burning of Lady Margaret Bulmer and the hanging of Cromwell’s friend, Sir Francis Bigod; more disemboweled Carthusians; the killing of Blessed John Forrest, former confessor of Catherine of Aragon and the only Catholic martyr to be burned at the stake in England; and the executions (on flimsier evidence of treason) of the last Plantagenets that would lead to the butchery of an old lady, Blessed Margaret Pole.

Lately, Dame Hilary Mantel has been afflicted by the George R.R. Martin’ Syndrome. It’s taken her five years to write the last volume of her Cromwell Trilogy, and yet The Mirror and the Light is not finished. She must have a hard time trying to find guilty parties on which to place what is only Cromwell’s blame or perhaps, like she does with Anne and her “lovers,” she’ll talk about justice. In her protagonist's  morally blurred world, “justice” and “revenge” are synonyms.

In “The Tudors,” Cromwell was a man capable of ruthless and cruel acts, but he was no sadist. Perhaps it’s why I grew to like him. He was a great fixer, a Renaissance Ray Donovan. It is sad that I can’t say the same of Rylance ‘s Cromwell, and it’s no fault of Sir Mark. Dame Hilary Mantel bent history over and backwards so her protagonist would emerge as an innocent and tolerant man. In the end, she turned this whitewashed Cromwell into a vindictive man who destroys lives for the sake of petty revenge.

 I was repelled by the comfort Good Tom seems to experience when Bad Tom loses his head. Cromwell’s resentment of Thomas More, due to the latter’s slighting him when they were children, sounds totally immature. According to Wolf Hall, this incident—of which St Thomas has no recollection—is what seals his fate. This is, after all, a tale of retribution.  More must atone for his childish snobbery with his life.

In Cromwell’s eyes, Anne Boleyn is guilty because she played a part in Cardinal Wolsey’s fall. She must pay for that. What about her five assumed paramours? They have always humiliated Mr. Secretary and they were also actors in a play that ridiculed Wolsey (who never saw the play). The fact that their punishment hardly befits their crime does not bother Cromwell or his creator.  It’s time to mention that Dame Hilary carries her own load of childish grudges and neurosis.  (I recommend reading Patricia Snow’s fantastic essay “The Devil and Hilary Mantel,” where she identifies the writer’s ghosts and how they reflect on her work.)

The Willingness to Serve a Tyrant.

 It’s no accident that “Wolf Hall” does not include St. Thomas final words: “I die the king’s faithful servant but G-d’s first.” In that succinct speech, More lets out his true reasons for not taking the Oath. Why compromise his soul to serve a tyrant’s whim? With all its flaws, The Papacy was the UN of its time, the single bulwark to contain misguided power-hungry monarchs like Henry VIII. In the amateur historian community of which I’m part it's tiresome to hear comments such a “Henry VIII liberated England.” The only one to achieve independence in this affair was the king who now answered to nobody and moreover, arrogated himself the high moral ground. He became his subjects “spiritual guide,” ruling what they could or not believe. Eventually, and to Good Tom’s horror, Harry reverted to Catholic orthodoxy and began to persecute Protestants!

Saint Thomas understood that Henry was ruled by his gonads and tried to distance himself from serving such a monster, even if distance meant leaving this world. Cromwell, on the other hand, was more than willing to serve a sociopath.  Good Tom thought he could leash Henry and use him. Unfortunately for him, the king tore that leash and bit his loyal servant to death.

“Wolf Hall,” the series, is well acted, period accurate, luxurious to watch (although its extreme darkness makes the visual rather difficult), but it is so terribly biased that I must encourage all its fans to read furtherly on the subject before making any conclusion. Am I calling for more fiction to be made on Good Tom and Bad Tom? No, there is plenty on both. JeremyNortham’s and James Frain’s portrayals of the Lords Chancellors in “The Tudors,” is enough of a good start in knowing and understanding such complex and fascinating figures.

I would like, though, to see something done in fiction about “The Megs,” Margaret More Roper and her sister Margaret Giggs Clements. The latter’s life is less known than that of Saint Thomas’ eldest daughter, but equally fascinating. She was a mathematician, an expert in medical lore, and not only did she attend her adoptive father’s execution, but she was also involved in ministering to the Carthusian monks condemned to death by Good Tom Cromwell’s orders. These women should be remembered for their learning, loyalty and courage in an era when men dictated the laws and often erred in doing so.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What I learned in “The Tudors” and why “Wolf Hall” was a disappointment

Thanks to “The Tudors,” I learned three historical facts:  saintly Thomas More burned heretics, Thomas Cromwell was a man ahead of his time; and Anne Boleyn was a learned   woman who brought French chic to the coarse English Court. My greatest disappointment with “Wolf Hall” was that it completely overlooked Anne’s contributions, inflated and falsified More’s dark side, and failed to turn Cromwell into a sympathetic figure. Does that mean “The Tudors” is superior to “Wolf Hall”?

I closed my opening paragraph with a question that, hopefully, will generate an honest debate. Ever since “Wolf Hall” debuted in “Masterpiece Theater,” it is anathema to try to compare it to” The Tudors.” Michael Hirst’ script is pulpy, full of gratuitous sex and historical inaccuracies. “Wolf Hall,” on the other hand, may lack Showtime’s flamboyance, has almost no sex, no nudity, and it’s discreet and modest, but, by no means, it should be considered flawless.

Having missed “Wolf Hall” in 2015, I was happy to catch a recent rerun in PBS. Although not blind to the show’s merits (which I shall discuss below), I was distracted and annoyed by so much bias and imprecisions.  For that, let’s not blame the BBC, but the book they so carefully adapted. I was told that when it came to historical fiction, Dame Hilary Mantel was scrupulous both in her research and in veracity. Too bad she lets her prejudices overshadow such scruples.

It came as a shock to me that my admired Thomas More had been a heretic hunter and instrumental in the burning of at least six of them.  I learned this sad bit of history in the trashy ‘Tudors’, but the Showtime series also enlightened me about other aspects of More’s life.  Easily verified aspects such as his devotion to his Spanish queen, his love for his family, his struggles to uphold his principles in trying times. The moment Jeremy Northman’s character got to the block, I was all for him because I understood that, in the context of his times, he was not a bad man.

Historians feared that upgrading Cromwell from the villains 'pit would overshadow his deviousness and crimes. Yet “The Tudors” presented us with a scheming, ruthless Cromwell who was not entirely unsympathetic. Mantel’s Cromwell lacks the debonair energy that James Frain brought to his character in “The Tudors.” Frain’s Cromwell bubbled with zest, industry, and expectations for the many projects he had concocted. In “Wolf Hall,” Sir Mark Rylance portrays Cromwell as a collected and distant man who sort of sleepwalks through his evil times and the evil things he does. He only breaks down twice, when in presence of his wife’s corpse, and in his angry tirade provoked by Thomas More’s assertion: “Ï do no harm.”

As Emily Nussbaum noticed in The New Yorker, Sir Mark plays Cromwell as a man without illusions. There we have the first historical inconsistency. Mr. Secretary was anything but a man lacking in aspirations. Realist as he was, he could also afford to dream about his coming up in life and his role in shaping England’s history. His foremost dream was to implant a new, superstition-free, religion in the land.

Almost at the end of the Third Season of “The Tudors” there is a scene that proves my words. A servant has sneaked in Cromwell’s rooms to pilfer a pear. He is shocked to find his master immersed in prayer. Why is he not in a church? Mr. Secretary not only gives him the pear, but rewards the boy with an explanation that G-d is everywhere. One doesn’t need temples or priestly intervention to approach Him! At that moment, Cromwell’s faith is so potent and moving that one forgives him all past misdemeanors. And yet in Wolf Hall, Mantel has an exasperated Cromwell tell More when he notices how his nemesis feels too close to the Almighty: “You talk about your Maker as if he were some neighbor you went fishing with on Sunday afternoon.” Isn’t that the whole point of the New Faith? A more personal relationship with the Divinity?

The problem is that Mantel is both anti-Catholic and anti-religion so she downplays her protagonist’s reformism and religious convictions. She is not alone in considering that the Lord Chancellor’s faith can be a deficiency.  In a blog that compared “The Tudors” to “Wolf Hall,” the bloggers accused Frain’s Cromwell of being “a fanatic.” It’s a telling sign of the times we live that any person of faith should be branded “a fanatic.”

Wolf Hall’s Cromwell may not be a fanatic, but he is a cunning, vindictive person, one who’s actions are motivated by personal resentments. This Cromwell holds grudges against several people and he acts against them propelled by such bitterness. On those grounds, he has Anne Boleyn, the five men accused of being her lovers, and St. Thomas More (whom Cromwell resents since they were children) executed. But the More-Cromwell Feud (that has no historical foundation) will be discussed in another entry. First, I want to be objective and point out the show’s merits, and then go into The Bad and The Ugly in book and series.

Much has been said about the book’s anti-Catholic slant, but few have noticed another dangerous prejudice. There are no good women in this story! The author is so vicious to characters of her own sex that one could call her misogynist. She is particularly venomous in her creation of a despicable and unredeemable Anne Boleyn. Next to Mantel’s Anne, Philippa Gregory’s queen is St. Bernadette Soubirous.

Damian Lewis as not-so-fat Henry VIII

Although he opted (like others had before him) to be a slim Henry VIII, Damian Lewis played a character remarkably closer to what the last Tudor king was in real life.  This Harry is not a cynical psychopath like Jonathan Rhys Mayer (in “The Tudors”,) neither is he a somber aloof tyrant like the one portrayed by Eric Bana in “The Other Boleyn Girl.” Damián’s Henry is affable, intelligent and somewhat vulnerable. On the second episode, he hands some coins to Cromwell for Wolsey-relief but whispers that he can’t give more because others won’t let him. There is a sense that he is a hesitant king,  that still cares for his adviser’s opinions, but who is not beyond charity and kindness.

Then, in the middle of the night, the king summons Cromwell. He’s had a bad dream and needs someone to holds his hand. And thus, the friendship begins. It’s almost biblical. Ahasuerus and Mordechai. Or is it Ahasuerus and Haman? Cromwell rises to the occasion and demands that Henry rules: “Now it’s the time for you to become the king you should be!” Really? Henry had been ruling for over fifteen years and so far, he had been doing a good job. It was only after Cromwell’s entrance in the picture that Harry became a jerk and that was not Mr. Secretary’s fault. Well, not entirely.

But the greatness of Damian’s performance lies in his character’s evolution. From the besotted king who confides to his secretary: “She (Anne) makes me shake!” and joyful father-to-be who hugs Cromwell after learning his wife is pregnant again, Henry evolves into a sneaky self-centered Queen of Hearts that demands the heads of all who crosses him. For once, there is no attempt to whitewash his character. In “Wolf Hall”, Henry is a beast willing to devour all who bother him: children, wives, friends.

Cromwell as a Ladies Man
Somewhere in “The Tudors,” James Frain bared his soul to his archfoe, the Duke of Suffolk, confiding that his enemies were wrong. Mr. Secretary had a heart, too much of it. In “Wolf Hall “I love to see how Sir Mark Rylance’s Cromwell puts that heart to work (and other parts of his body as well.) By the way Cromwell cries out over her corpse, he was madly in love with his wife Liz. He flirts up a storm with Mary Boleyn, talks about a mysterious Anselma — a past love— and indulges in a clandestine affair with his much-married sister-in-law. He even fantasizes about fondling Anne’s meager boobs!

All throughout, he silently pines for virginal Jane Seymour. Yes, the same one that married Henry the VIII. It is heart-rendering to see Cromwell facing the fact that his king is taking away the woman he loves. It makes you think that if he had spent less time plotting revenge and nursing childish grudges, he could have found happiness with Jane. Well, only in fiction because there is no historical basis for such a romance, but to me,  this is one legitimate creative license.

Sir Mark’s scene with newcomer Kate Phillips (who plays Jane) are a delight to see. He is warm, caring and almost paternal towards her. This attitude turns him into an endearing character. Jane, like most women in the show, can be true to herself when alone with the Lord Chancellor. On that note, Mary Boleyn pours out her heart to Cromwell, and even haughty Anne holds his hand and shows him her bare legs during her confinement.

Dame Hilary Mantel’s finest mastery lies in her depiction of Thomas Cromwell’s relationships with the other sex. With none of James Frain’s sycophantic graciousness, Rylance comes out as someone who understands women and is willing to help them. As caustic Lady Rochford mutters, he is “a good listener.” Sadly, the women in this tale are not as amiable as Good Tom.

Were There No Nice Women in Tudor England?
What makes Cromwell’s kindness towards women so extraordinary is that there are no sympathetic feminine roles in this story. The few nice girls are either children (Cromwell’s dead daughter) or low class:  his wife, Rafe’s wife, Crammer’s wife (the last two only appear in the book).  But even his sister-in- law,  whom he takes into his bed after his wife’s passing, is shown as an adulteress, who dreams her husband dead, and is willing to marry a forbidden man (in those days marrying an in-law was considered incest).  And not all humble women deserve good treatment from Mr. Secretary’s part.

Neither Cromwell nor Mantel have pity on Elisabeth Barton, the “Holy Nun of Kent,” a former serving girl famous from her visions. Mr. Secretary uses her for his purposes and has her executed without trial, failing to see her as what she really is, a deranged woman. To his eyes, a visionary who serves the nobility is a toadying lackey. Ironically, so is Cromwell and like Elisabeth Barton, he will also lose his head.

But it’s ladies of quality that get the worst press here. They are ambitious fools like Blessed Margaret Pole, or big- mouthed alcoholics like Lady Alice More. Mary Boleyn is a slut consumed by sibling- rivalry and her sister in-law, Jane Rochford (delightful to see Jessica Raines move so far from her angelic Jenny of “Call the Midwife,”) is a spiteful bitch.

 Katherine of Aragon, the most tragic character in this tale, is depicted as a superior snob who introduces Cromwell to her daughter as: “This is Mr. Cromwell. He used to be a moneylender.” Even sweet Jane Seymour, whom Cromwell loves from afar, is a shrinking violet who pretends to be much more gullible than she is, and can leave doodles of headless corpses on the bed of her tormenting mistress. But it is that mistress, Anne Boleyn, who gets the worst and mostly unjust press in the book and the series.

No other historical figure in Wolf Hall (aside from Thomas More, of course) gets butchered as Anne Boleyn does. Remembering the outrage at Anne’s portrayal in The Other Boleyn Girl, it’s amazing that nobody has complained about Hilary Mantel’s distorted interpretation of King Henry’s second wife. Dame Hilary considers the real Anne Boleyn a self-serving woman who used her sexuality to get ahead, and she describes her as such.

Modern historians do not share Mantel’s narrow-minded views. And certainly, that is not the Anne Boleyn played by Natalie Dormer in “The Tudors.” Dormer’s Anne is an ambitious and manipulative temptress. but Sir Thomas Wyatt’s muse is much more than a mere seductress. Natalie told Professor Susan Bordo that she had read plenty on Henry’s second queen and wanted to incorporate her knowledge to her character.

 Although, Michael Hirst was bent into The Other Woman stereotype, Natalie Dormer managed to pull Anne away from the femme fatale niche and brought us a devout reformer, an intellectual who guided Henry’s readings, a patron of poets and musicians, and a kind queen who felt that the Church’s confiscated riches belonged to the poor not to Henry or Cromwell.

Hilary Mantel does not believe in that Anne. On that note, she invents a queen of phony, an affected little bitch that sports a fake French accent (she insists on calling the Lord Chancellor, “Cremuel”) someone who is cruel to her maids, and lethal to her enemies. Poor Claire Foy, aside from wearing ill-fitting clothing, her Anne wears a perpetual scowl. Anne’s contemporaries, even her enemies, commented on her unusual vivaciousness and wit. Alas, Foy’s pouting creature is not one to provoke desire.

As depicted in “The Tudors,” Cromwell and his queen worked together to reform England and its church. Their dynamic has captured the fandom imagination who express the shipping in all forms of fanfiction. But just as Dame Hilary has chosen to ignore all good about Queen Elizabeth’s mother (I have just read a great article that identifies Anne with Dame Hilary’s mother!), she has her Cromwell loathing Anne and The Boleyn Family.

Both Edward Hall’s Chronicles, and Eustace Chapuys’ reports to his emperor, describe Anne constantly railing against Princess Mary and Catherine of Aragon. She did dress in yellow and threw parties to “celebrate” the Spanish queen’s demise. So, I’m inclined to believe what Wolf Hall and “The Tudors” tell us about Anne’s hatred for her husband’s ex, and her fears that “bastard” Mary would rob Elizabeth of her throne. Perhaps she resented More’s commitment to Catherine, but I don’t believe that like Mantel’s Anne, she played a pivotal role in his martyrdom.

In real life, Anne and Cromwell had a fallout over something Dame Hillary opts to forget: Cromwell’s greed. Anne was shocked to discover that the confiscated gold from the dissolved abbeys was lining her husband’s and Mr. Secretary’s pockets. She demanded it should be used for charity. When Cromwell refused, Anne had a priest preach against Mr. Secretary comparing him to biblical Haman. It was then that Cromwell decided to bring down the queen and her family. But Wolf Hall disregards these historical truths and has Anne and Cromwell fighting over something as bizarre as…Mary Tudor.

The Strange Case of Princess Mary and her Evil Stepmother
Wolf Hall presents us with a disturbing and off-the- wall relationship between Lord Chancellor and Lady Mary Tudor. One of the (obviously trumped out) charges against Thomas Cromwell was his intention to marry Henry’s eldest daughter. Funny, because Mary and Cromwell were not even friends.  After Anne Boleyn’s execution, Cromwell corresponded with Lady Mary to convince her (he failed just like with More and Catherine of Aragon) to take the accursed Oath recognizing Henry as the head of Catholic Church. After being rebutted once too many, Mr. Secretary lost composure and wrote in anger to the Princess calling her “the most obstinate of women!” Hardly the road for married bliss.

In Wolf Hall, Cromwell meets Mary while visiting her mother. He finds her suffering from menstrual cramps, and drags a chair for her to sit down. That bit of kindness prompts the future Bloody Mary to confide to this stranger her opinions of his father’s mistress. Later, he tries to make Mary’s life less miserable by arranging a dynastic marriage for her.

Henry, who acts like he hates a daughter he once loved, berates Cromwell and accuses him of getting too big for his breeches. Anne, of course, fuels the fires. She truly hates Mary and demands Cromwell to compromise her stepdaughter. After all, “She likes you!” Ohhh, is this Queen Ravenna talking about Snow White? Not even gossipy Chapuys imagined Anne reaching this extent of hatred for her husband’s daughter. “Those are not my methods,” Cromwell answers coldly. His interest in Mary will lead to his final bout with the queen.

By the end of Chapter Six, the king has received a bad blow while jousting. Fearing his imminent death, Cromwell sends for Princess Mary, obviously to have her crowned. On hearing this, Anne goes bonkers. Why such a treacherous act when she was pregnant and Elizabeth was the obvious choice to inherit her father’s crown? As this never happened in real life, Mantel’s Cromwell comes up with the lamest of excuses. He can’t rely on unborn babes and infants. Would the real Cromwell rely on Mary, a girl that had every reason to detest him, a devout Catholic, the emperor’s cousin, someone that stood against everything he believed and fought for? Obviously not, but that is Dame Hilary’s way to explain Cromwell’s betrayal of Anne.

All I hope, is that in the last book, Dame Hilary continues playing with this impossible but titillating friendship between such unlikely mates.  Meanwhile there is plenty of fanfiction (in video form) created by those who ship Mary-Cromwell.

In my next entry, I hope to discuss the totally fictitious feud between both Lord Chancellors, show how real-life Thomas More had nothing to do with Mantel’s character, and how by placing Cromwell on an altar, Dame Hilary distanced him from the riveting man he really was.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The feminization of period drama: Are we to blame gender for inaccurate historical fiction?

Last year, James Delingbone caused an uproar around social media when he blamed the “feminization of culture” for the recurrent erroneousness in historical fiction. Although part of an ongoing debate, Delingbone’s insistence to bring gender into the equation, enraged and shocked many. Not that there were no bases for his reproach, but he failed to realize that since its origins, historical fiction, particularly historical romances, has targeted women.  Feminine tastes and demands have shaped the genre, and one of its tropes is the bending of historical events to spice up the plot. Lately we’ve seen a reaction to that state of things, the rise of more “masculine” period pieces. Nevertheless, historical incoherence also comes to play a part in these new shows. So, who is to blame?

Let us go back to the article that started this controversy. In April 2016, James Delingbone published on The Spectator a piece called “ITV's Victoria is silly, facile and irresponsible – I blame the feminization of culture.”  Under this overlong title, laid a negative review of Masterpiece’s “Victoria,” another one of those biopics about Her Royal Highness, Queen Vicky. Delingbone had a point since the series presented a lot of fluff and very little accuracy.
We are too cute to be historical!

The first season had irked me tremendously, so I embraced Delingbone’s accusations that the liberty taking with historical facts in “Victoria” felt like “one giant upraised middle finger to those of us who value history.”  I also applauded his demanding of a responsible attitude from the part of historical drama producers and a commitment to their public: “you owe it to your audience to cleave as close as you reasonably can to the known biographical facts.”

Sadly, Delingbone went on to spew offensive (and untrue) statements such as “I suspect it’s probably true that boys, being of a more transporters disposition, more jealous of their facts and their period detail, are more likely to be resistant to Victoria’s ersatz charms than girls.”
Oh, Dash, apparently only dogs and girls like me!

Delingbone forgot that macho costumed potboilers such as “Spartacus”, “Black Sails,” and “Vikings”, also twist historical facts. Slave-turned-gladiator Crixus didn’t have sex with his Domina Lucretia: Alfred the Great was Ragnar’s contemporary (and already king when the Vikings reached England); and Blackbeard died in battle, he was never keelhauled by governor Woodes Rogers.

Ragnar and Little Alfred. In real life, they were about the same age.

From its beginnings, historical fiction has forayed into the land of speculation to make it less “dull”, and to fill in gaps. Many of those gap-fillers wore pants. Mary Stuart meeting Cousin Bess was Schiller’s invention, Shakespeare forged Richard the III’s bad reputation, and Spartacus was crucified only by Stanley Kubrick.

Although we tend to associate early historical fiction with seminal writers such as Alexandre Dumas and Sir Walter Scott, Gothic literature was the first field where depictions of the past became a norm. Women Gothic authors such as Anne Radcliffe, Maria Edgeworth, Clara Barton and Miss Sophia Lee were instrumental in blending romance, horror and days of yore. Particularly, Miss Lee, who in the years prior to the French Revolution, wrote what may be the first historical romance, The Recess. She even subtitled it A Tale of Other Times.

Drifting from the Middle Ages, Gothic’s favorite scenario, Sophia Lee moved to the Elizabethan Era to deal with historical figures such as Mary Stuart, Queen Elizabeth and her courtiers. In real life, The Queen of Scots bore a set of stillborn babies, product of her marriage to Lord Bothwell. In The Recess, the author provides Mary with a fourth husband, The Duke of Norfolk, who fathers her twin daughters. Ellinor and Matilda grow up to plague poor Aunt Elizabeth’s life. Not only do they threaten her throne, they try to steal her boyfriends! Ellinor falls for domed Earl of Essex, Matilda goes on to marry Robert Dudley.  (what happened to Amy Robsart and Lettice Knollys?)

The Recess gave birth to tropes associated with historical romance to this day: the amalgam of romance and history; the alteration of real events to suit storytelling; beautiful unconventional protagonists, and the highlighting of characterization over action. This latest form of literature caused controversy. Philosopher Willian Goodwin (Mary Shelley’s father) bemoaned in his On History and Romance, that the new genre “debauched and corrupted” history.  He also noticed that women and boys were historical romances main readers.

Since then, historical fiction has been associated with a feminine audience. Nineteenth century literature mirrored such interest.  In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen presented us with a protagonist obsessed with Gothic fiction.  Young ladies of leisure like Stendhal’s Mathilde de La Mole were hooked on Walter Scott’s historical yarns. Louisa May Alcott’s Old-Fashioned Girl professed to despise Ouida’s popular French novels preferring instead the work of German author Luise Mulhbach, because her novels “are historical.”

In my own youth, I learned history thanks to period drama and historical fiction written by Anya Seton, Daphne Du Maurier, and the exalted Jean Plaidy, she of the many pseudonyms. In the late 70s, fresh from high school, I became acquainted with the infamous bodice-rippers, a cocktail of  romance and erotica,  dressed in period outfits. Critics can label such literature as pulpy or trash, the truth is that it confirms historical fiction as a feminine turf, therefore we cannot talk of a “feminization” campaign.

 Going back to “Victoria,” Delingbone’s main peeve was with the beautification of characters. He complained about Jenna Coleman looking gorgeous (“more than the dumpy Victoria ever did”) and Lord Melbourne played by “smoldering” Rufus Sewell. He particularly objected to the fictitious romance between Melbourne (a portly and gray gentleman in real life) and his sovereign.

 I wasn’t bothered by that romance.  Gorgeous protagonists and romantic interests are elements of the genre, and real dumpy Victoria could have had a crush on Lord M.  Young girls tend to fall in love with father-figures who offer them kindness and consideration. Since Vicky was called “Mrs. Melbourne” behind her back, rumors about a dalliance must have been in the air in her early days on the throne.

Real life Melbourne and his dumpy queen.
Slender. and...
Smoldering. The traps of historical romance.

What I did mind, and I totally agree with Delingbone’s complains on the subject, was that unsightly rat episode. Buckingham Palace was not Hamelin, it was never overrun by rodents, and Queen Vicky did not go into hysterics on seeing mice sprouting, like a chorus girl, from her birthday cake. Most importantly, there was never a hint in her behavior that may have led to believe that she could have inherited King George’s madness. That need to show women of the past, whether they are Queen Victoria or Jackie Kennedy, suffering from “the vapors” or throwing hysterical tantrums is the product of misogynist minds.
Queen Vicky didn't give us cake!

Despite Delingbone’s assertions, women do cringe at historical inaccuracies. I have often been accused of being a pedantic nitpicker for grumbling about certain phoniness that tinges period pieces. Modern sensibilities have become so distant from that of our forebears that any attempt to recreate bygone eras must be stuffed with absurdities to make historical characters more relevant to us, Third Millennium audience.

The current fashion is to adjust events in historical fiction to fit into the canons of political correction. Whether we like it or not, the great upholders of political correctness tend to be feminists. It is them that demand that historical context doesn’t challenge their ideology. But not only feminists fall prey to the habit of reflecting contemporary views on ancient settings. Were Roman matrons as foul-mouthed as their counterparts in “Spartacus?”  I doubt it, and yet the gladiator series is an example of the “masculinization” of period drama.

 In “Black Sails,” another macho tale, I was shocked to see Mrs. Guthrie offering Max a white powerful husband who could become the new governor of Nassau. Aside from the fact that as a former slave/bisexual prostitute, Max was not precisely a candidate to be the toast of Colonial Philadelphia’s high society, the color of her skin barred her from becoming the wife of any 18th century gentleman.  Such marriage would have  been as anachronic as Marie Antoinette and her ladies doing drugs in the Sofia Coppola movie.

At least in Coppola’s film the fashion of Enlightened Versailles was well-researched. The same cannot be said of “Reign,” the series describing Mary Stuart's youth. In that show, The Queen of Scots wears anything but what an early Sixteenth century noblewoman would. Those see-through blouses, those sleeveless dresses, those leather riding pants… What are they thinking?

Mary, Mary quite contrary. This is not what queens wore in the 1500s

 In 2008, historian David Starkey ranted in The Telegraph against the Victorian carriages used in “The Tudors.” I second his ranting. As women who claim and reclaim historical romance as our territory, we must also demand as much historical veracity and context as possible in it, especially when it comes to everyday life items such as costumes and furniture.

There are those who will oppose this crusade, claiming period drama is not a history class. This recalls Adelaide Kane’s flippant answer when confronted with the historical mishmash that is “Reign”: “How many teenage girls do you know that are obsessed with history? I know I wasn’t at that age.” Thus, our sweet Mary, Queen of Scots, confirms to Delingbone, Starkey and those of that ilk, that they are right. Girls are to blame for historical inaccuracy because they don’t care, because they are not “obsessed” with history.

Disregard for historical details breeds fashion disasters.

The danger is that teenage girls (who obviously are the target for Kane’s show) learn what-passes-for-history from “Reign.” Hence, they will go on thinking that Mary Stuart was raped by courtiers, killed Catherine De Medici’s bastard daughter and had more lovers than the poor woman could fit in her bed. We say that customers are not supposed to teach history, but in the end, sex romps like “Versailles,” “Reign, “and the Iberian “Aguila Roja,” do much worse. They combine false depictions with soft porn and end up in the weirdest and most useless history lesson any audience could stomach.  

There should be limits to creative license, balance between fantasy and the spirit of authenticity, and as James Delingbone demanded, responsibility to the public. Just as the worst fanfiction is the one that strays away from the original, a freely inspired adaptation of historical events won’t guarantee a quality product. From the moment  a piece claims to be historical or based on actual incidents, there should be a commitment to deliver a story that is at least 80% truth. After all, sometimes reality can be much more fun than reprehensible and inaccurate clichés. Don’t you agree?