It’s come to my attention that Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is being bashed as anti-Catholic, and given that I adore Mantel’s novels, I’d like to come to her defense.
Caveat: I’ve read only Wolf Hall, and not yet Bring Up the Bodies. I’ve seen only the first twenty or so minutes of the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation, and that only because I’d never seen Mark Rylance in action, nor in (as it were) trousers. But I’ve read all of her earlier novels except one.
My understanding is that Mantel’s novel An Experiment in Love is largely autobiographical. That is, like her protagonist Carmel in that novel, she was born in England to a working-class Irish or Anglo-Irish family, was educated as a day student in a Catholic convent, and studied law at the University of London in the 1970s, when she dabbled in leftist politics and university Labour Party organizations. And further, that like Frances in Eight Months in Ghazzah Street, she travelled with her husband to Saudi Arabia and lived there for a time as an expatriate. As far as I know, she is still a woman of the left. I was unaware until today, clicking hyperlinks, that she no longer considers herself a Catholic. It is not something I would ever have gathered from her novels, and while her account of Tudor England is clearly sympathetic to the Protestant side, I can’t understand why it must be seen as anti-Catholic.
The problem cannot be that More is depicted as “mean” to our hero. By now I think we know that the protagonist or narrator of a novel is not intended to be taken as a perfect human being. I think it’s that Mantel ignores the standard Catholic chronology of the English Reformation, in which innocent Catholic believers were burned at the stake by infidels, to focus at least temporarily on the other half of that narrative, in which innocent Protestant believers or Catholic dissenters were burned at the stake by that same state. And she depicts Thomas More as the architect of this policy. Worse, I suspect, she implies strongly (and she supports Cromwell in arguing) that More essentially committed suicide, that he deliberately courted martyrdom, that he intended his death to serve politically tactical ends, and that he failed to save his life by permissible means when he would have been able to do so without incurring fault. Ultimately, Mantel’s insight is that More’s approach, taken to its logical conclusion as it appears More took it, would destroy the state—and that the state, all things considered, given the current state of humanity’s development, is basically a good thing to have.
Her Cromwell is not perfect. He is, on Mantel’s account, a monster. He is an ordinary modern man . . . but one given extraordinary power and access, by people who are able to wield nearly absolute power and who are inclined to delegate this power without hindrance for significant lengths of time. (The insight of Rylance’s performance, I think, is that his Cromwell denies to himself the fact that he can wield power at all. But this seemed to me to be a divergence from Mantel’s original.) He is, on my reading, wielded by Mantel as a device to explore the significance of modernity’s beginnings: its necessity, its dangers, and what it left behind.
Is Mantel’s writing anti-Catholic? It’s very hard to say. She is (in Fludd) hard on the superstition of the years before Vatican II, and equally hard on the way the powers within the church imposed its changes on ordinary people and priests, and again hard on the lack of help the church was able to give to poor Anglo-Irish laborers struggling with the loss of their jobs as the 1960s wore on. She is (in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street) critical of religion generally, and in particular of Islam, but also of clueless educated English ladies who are incredulous of ordinary women’s piety; in the end, her English heroine sides with the Muslim women against the alliance of Western imperialism with Saudi medievalism. In Vacant Possession, her first-published novel, and in A Change of Climate, she is decidedly critical not of the Catholic church but of the Anglican one, in a way that might suggest a preference for the former.
Her treatment of the Catholic church in An Experiment in Love is not entirely positive, especially in regard to its education of women. But possibly there’s some regret here for the loss of numerous vocations for women. And regardless, that novel is no more anti-Catholic than the much-beloved plays Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? When Mantel criticizes, it’s a kind of 1970s do-gooderism that’s most easily associated with English town councils and with Labourite social workers and curates and missionaries, and her criticism often amounts to a condemnation of their denial of the real existence of evil, as one would expect a Catholic to do. (It’s interesting to compare these books with A.S. Byatt’s Potter family novels, which approach religion in the 1960s and 1970s with a decidedly Protestant, critical attitude.)
She is unfair to More; certainly, she is less charitable towards More than Robert Bolt, in A Man for All Seasons, was in 1960. (A post on this is actually something I had half-drafted, and as yet unbacked-up when my previous laptop crashed, two years ago.) Bolt, famously, put into Thomas More’s mouth exactly the opposite of the sentiment Mantel shows him obeying, in his actions: this was her choice, as eliding what “enforcing the law” might have meant to More was Bolt’s. But Mantel is a novelist, and a novelist knows that people disagree among themselves. Is she obliged, when writing about a person who knew a person who now is canonized, to never present the other person’s point of view? Surely not. And no feminist who had read the Utopia could be entirely charitable to Thomas More.
Think of Wolsey as Roger Sterling, with Thomas Cromwell as Don Draper and Walter White combined. Wolsey enables Cromwell in the most literal sense, either not recognizing that a man as lowly as the latter could become a real danger to the status quo, or more likely not caring. He chooses Thomas Cromwell because Thomas Cromwell is good at enforcing Thomas Wolsey’s will. Mantel is very clear about that, and clear about the fact that Cardinal Wolsey himself benefited from the closures of monasteries that were ordered by the king.
Her Cromwell is indeed a monster, and best compared to the aptly named O’Brien the corporate boss Eric Parsons in the Orwellian Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. The figure of the fixer is all around these days, from Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty to the historian Robert Darnton’s recent Censors at Work. He’s a monster, but he is the time’s own monster: materialistic, pragmatic, attuned to the whereabouts of power, individualistic. There is no reason to condemn Hilary Mantel for that. Further, Cromwell knows things that More does not, or Wolsey, or Henry; and those are important things. He knows what the kind of government Henry wants needs, if it’s to be run successfully. The Tudor England of her novel would not be a better, kinder place if he had never lived.
Cromwell also knows something about what the Reformation promises that neither of them really grasps. At the time Mantel is writing about, the Reformation was less a thing than a collection of people, and books, and ideas like that of reading the Bible in one’s own language. Perhaps, within a decade, or two or three, Luther would have been incorporated into Catholic doctrine: who could tell? And who could know that a Counter-Reformation would transform even what doctrinal Catholicism meant to the world? Mantel’s Cromwell illustrates what the Reformation might have meant to a middle-class man who lived in the world. She wields him, I think, as a rebuke to modern capitalism (while not rejecting modernity itself). Possibly he illustrates the incompatibility of capitalism and Catholic Christianity. But it seems to me she half-sides with the church on the question. How that amounts to anti-Catholicism, I don’t understand.
 O'Brien is actually the Irish story-telling giant, in The Giant, O'Brien, who moves to London and then sells his body to science because his friends need the cash. The shorts-wearing boss in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, who recruits Frances Shore's husband, Andrew, and who is reminiscent of Orwell's O’Brien, is named Eric Parsons. It’s true that toward the end of the novel, Parsons begins to look a bit hapless, at the mercy of the Saudis, but still, throughout the story he's the focus of Frances’s fear and loathing for the corporate masters who control her existence while she and her husband are in Jeddah. I think Wolf Hall is the first of Mantel’s novels to focus neither on women nor on a congeries of men, all embodying different aspects of Machiavellian maneuvering, but on a single male figure who combines all their characteristics. In Eight Months on Ghazzah Street these traits are split among Parsons, the repugnant Jeffrey Pollard, and the more truly hapless Andrew, plus the Shores’ neighbor Raji from across the hall. In A Place of Greater Safety, the characteristics of a Thomas Cromwell are split between the surprisingly sympathetic Darnton and the deeply chilling Robespierre. But Parsons has always struck me as an ostensibly milder, real-world version of 1984’s O’Brien, and if Cromwell does possess any of his haplessness, perhaps it comes out in Rylance’s portrayal.