Reviews

Wolf Hall

The most acclaimed novel of the last year may be a literary achievement -
but it is also a historical travesty
By Kathleen McGowan

Hilary Mantel certainly doesn’t need my praise and I am sure she will not miss it.

Ms. Mantel’s seventh novel, Wolf Hall, was the 2009 winner of the prestigious Booker Prize and the Fiction Critics’ Award. The book, which tells the story of the Boleyn period from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, has received heaps of critical acclaim from virtually every major publication in the English language. The Guardian’s review calls Mantel “The Tudor’s finest portraitist yet.” I don’t suppose any of the Tudors would agree with that claim were they here today, and neither do I.  Wolf Hall is not a portrait of the Tudors; it is a portrait of Thomas Cromwell, with the Tudors acting as the sometimes colorful but always superficial catalysts for Cromwell’s daily manipulations of government and religion. I was initially puzzled by this particular piece of praise, not because it was so glowing – but because it was so off the mark. A quick Google search revealed that Ms Mantel writes for the Guardian, enlightening me to a type of nepotism worthy of a Tudor!

We are expected to enter into Wolf Hall with a knowledge of this infamous period of time, and to have a grasp of the history, but what a fundamentalist, tired and unimaginative version of history it is. Henry is capricious! Anne Boleyn is a scheming slut and so is her sister! All Boleyns are wicked! Everyone except Cromwell is a caricature, a one dimensional paper doll in Tudor costume. Anne is the comic book villainess, the Poison Ivy to Cromwell’s Bat Man. It’s not bad enough that she has sharp pointed teeth, a black stare, a cold, slick brain, but she is also capable of infanticide. And yet, for all of her melodramatic wickedness, Cromwell and others will appeal to her for the sake of an imperiled reformer who faces death. We are never shown why this woman who is otherwise depicted as a soulless, demonic schemer would care, even for a moment, to defend new religious thought. Nor is it given a political explanation. So whereas we are treated to Cromwell’s opinion that Anne will potentially stab people with the forks that he gives her for Christmas, we are not shown any reason whatsoever that this evil Anne the Impaler would advocate for reformers – or for anyone.

I experienced a surreal moment near the end of the book where I had a feeling of having fallen down the historical rabbit hole, wherein everything is a little bit topsy turvy. Any world wherein Thomas Cromwell is the most decent of the characters in the Tudor/Boleyn saga is definitely a strange and dark version of the past – and ultimately, a twisted one. I had to tell myself on a number of occasions, “do not fall in love with this fictional version of Cromwell” which is much to the author’s credit, given that I believe him to be one of the great villains of all time. But it is ultimately at the cost of virtually every other character in the story that we come to see Cromwell as sympathetic. In retrospect, there is no other major character within the book who is truly redeemable.

Mantel uses up her supply of creative characterization with Cromwell. He is so well drawn, so multidimensional, that she has no energy left over for the paper dolls who populate the rest of the story. We watch the meticulous and precise way in which Cromwell eliminates Anne Boleyn – and everyone else who has offended him during his career – with deadly surgical strikes. It is mass murder made legal by the king’s seal. Cromwell as serial killer. And yet, Mantel’s skill as a storyteller is such that we view Cromwell with sympathy through the most heinous of his crimes.

Mantel is a skilled technician, but the sheer number of cheap caricatures and shallow portraits in this book renders it irredeemable for me. This appears to be part of the author’s strategy to ensure sympathy for Cromwell - he is the only fully formed character to populate her landscape. Was I the only one frustrated by this?

I found myself wondering as I read: is this all style over substance? Is Mantel’s achievement that she created something that is stylistically unique rather than important of content? My verdict is to the affirmative.

 

Fatal Mistakes

G.W. Bernard’s Anne Boleyn book
By Philip Coppens

Patrick Skene Catling’s review for The Irish Times summarizes G.W. Bernard’s view of Anne Boleyn succinctly: “Boleyn is depicted here as an unfaithful, reactionary slut with nymphomaniacal tendencies. And Henry wasn’t such a bad guy by 16th-century standards. He could have decreed that she should be burned to death, but he only had her head chopped off.” (1) Indeed, though Bernard raves against those who today seek in Anne a role model for women and pretends to hunger for the liberty novelists can take with the subject, in the end, Bernard gives the most controversial queen of history a tabloid treatment, which could be headlined as: “no evidence, but found guilty.”

Though Fatal Attractions reads like a biography, Bernard’s approach is to use Anne’s life to show her character, to convince the reader that she is guilty of the crimes she was accused of, and which resulted in her beheading. Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish Ambassador at her court, only ever referred to Anne Boleyn as the Whore or the Concubine. Chapuys chauvinistically sided with Catherine of Aragon, the woman Henry VIII was trying to substitute for Anne Boleyn. But his letters and notes continue to be the most widely used material to piece the Boleyn puzzle together. A professional historian like Bernard cannot get away without mentioning that Chapuys was unreliable and agenda-driven. Despite claiming to share these reservations, chapter 6, “Anne Against Catherine”, is entirely constructed along what Chapuys wrote, quoting him in every paragraph for the first five pages of the chapter!

Bernard’s obsession seems to be to untangle Anne Boleyn from Henry VIII, and concludes that Henry VIII was in charge of the annulment of his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, as well as the Reformation itself – thus going against the more common stance, which is that Anne Boleyn was a far more active player in these events, if not the director. For anyone except an academic, it is a moot debate, for in reality, Henry and Anne were a married couple, whereby most of their actions should be seen as coming from that unit. Specifically, it adds little to answer the main enigma: why Henry VIII had her executed after having gone through all the trouble of divorcing Catherine of Aragon and breaking with the Catholic Church.

Historians are unable to answer that question. Historically, charges were made against Boleyn of adultery if not incest. She was convicted, and beheaded. Today, the same historians argue that the evidence against Anne was invented. But Bernard does not believe so and the main argument in his book – which allowed Bernard’s book to grab many newspaper headlines and reviews – is that he believes she was guilty. “Believe” is the correct verb, even though from most reviews, it would seem as if Bernard has evidence or proof for this claim. He has, however, none.

Though documents of Anne’s trial no longer exist, the indictments against Anne do remain. Analysis has shown that the majority of the dates and places mentioned as to where Anne’s improprieties were said to have occurred, are impossible. Bernard agrees, stating those are “quite impossible” (either something is possible, or it’s impossible – there is no middle ground), adding that “other sources show that Anne and her supposed lover simply could not have been together on that day in that place.” He concludes: “Only six of the twenty dates and places in the indictment studies were even theoretically possible, it has been suggested; for the rest it can readily be shown that Anne or her alleged lover could not have been at that place or on that day.”
“Suggested”? Bernard waters this conclusion down, for his case is to show that Anne was guilty of adultery, if not incest with her brother, so the fact that only a minority of the indictments are possible – which however does not mean they happened – is a major stumbling block in his argument.

So how does he try to circumvent this problem? “Maybe such reasoning is not wholly watertight” starts a number of suggestions as to how the statements of the indictments might be erroneous. Including: “and clerks might have made errors of transcription, for example writing Greenwich when they should have put Hampton Court.” Seriously? This is the worst kind of historical research and Bernard is a professor of early medieval history at the University of Southampton! As the evidence does not fit his preconceived theory, he is arguing away the – little – historical evidence available in Anne’s case! Again: seriously?

The professor of history thus uses a lame lawyer’s argument, which is that for the case of adultery to work, the crimes needed to be specified by time and place, and that the witnesses could potentially not remember the real dates, hence fictional timeframes were created. Indeed, it is possible, but is it likely – or “quite possible”? Unlikely! And, specifically, whereas it is all possible, to adhere to such a conclusion from a scientific point of view (rather than a lawyer’s argument), Bernard should prove his allegation. He does nothing of the kind.

To his credit, in chapter 12, Bernard concludes that “there simply is not sufficient evidence to conclude beyond reasonable doubt that Anne, her brother, Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton were guilty”. So in any court, it would mean they were innocent. But wait… that “does not mean that they were all innocent.” Bernard’s court plays with different rules, it is clear, than all other legal systems!

As there is no evidence, you might wonder what Bernard has to argue that despite a lack of evidence, she is nevertheless guilty. For this, he uses the old legal trick of showing character. Bernard therefore engineers a character assassination, specifically highlighting:
- her flirtatious behavior;
- her widespread reputation as a whore;
- the climate of “dancing and pastime” that occurred at her court;
- her defiance of Henry’s infidelities;
- her “foolish and reckless behavior” – whatever that might mean.

Even if all of these were true, they are all far removed from the accusations of adultery! It might therefore com as a shock that agrees, and argues that most of these accusations were not real, but misunderstanding resulting from “unguarded speech and gossips”. So, Bernard, what convinces you, as a professor of history, that Anne Boleyn was guilty of adultery and potentially incest? “It remains my own hunch that Anne had indeed committed adultery with Norris, probably with Smeaton, possibly with Weston, and was then the victim of the most appalling bad luck when the countess of Worcester, one of her trusted ladies, contrived in a moment of irritation with her brother to trigger the devastating chain of events that led inexorably to Anne’s downfall.”

A hunch? Seriously, professor? A hunch?

The only evidence he uses to support his hunch is a French poem by de Carles. First of all, none of the other Tudor scholars use de Carles’ poem as evidence, if only because… it is a poem. And whereas Bernard is allowed to argue that there is no evidence to doubt de Carles, surely the fact that it is a poem, is evidence enough to exclude it from serious historical debate? Using Bernard’s logic, the fact that the ancient Egyptians wrote thousands of pages on the survival of the soul after death, is scientific evidence of the existence of life after death!

As Bernard goes to character on Boleyn, we need to go to character on Bernard. Professionally, Bernard’s scientific approach in this book is seriously flawed. Exhibit one. On April 18, 1536, Chapuys was present at the English court and was forced to acknowledge Anne Boleyn. Chapuys’ feelings for Anne were widely known at court, so there was some anxiety as to how the meeting would go. Bernard himself highlights that Chapuys had been told by Spanish Emperor Charles V not to let his personal feelings for Anne Boleyn come in between his diplomatic mission with Henry VIII. Yet Bernard twists this episode into claiming that because Henry VIII’s entourage double-checked to make sure the queen would be treated with the proper respect, it is clear evidence that there was nothing wrong in the relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Seriously? Bernard uses this “evidence” to argue that there was little time between April 18 and the accusations of adultery brought against her in early May. True. But for Bernard, it is molded into evidence that whatever caused her death, was posterior to April 18, and the only possibility, Bernard argues, would be the indictment itself, and is hence suggestive that Henry VIII believed the charges. Maybe. But there is also evidence – not discussed by Bernard and most other Boleyn scholars – that suggests that Anne Boleyn walked in or found out – in a manner that Henry could not deny – that Henry VIII had had sexual intercourse with Jane Seymour. This documented possibility does not even get mentioned by Bernard! Why? It is my hunch that Bernard is seriously in love with Henry VIII and as a result, quickly sees the bad in Anne Boleyn, but never in Henry VIII!

Exhibit two. The largest chapter in the book is about Anne’s religion, which is of no relevance to the case of adultery, but is still nevertheless scholarly research. Apart from jabs at fellow Boleyn scholars, Bernard shows himself to be less than scholarly, as pointed out in The Literary Review’s review of Bernard’s book: “Less persuasive [...] is Bernard's compulsion to demonstrate (continuing an argument he conducted in earlier academic journals) that Anne was in no sense a patroness of the Reformation, or anything like a proto-Protestant, but rather a thoroughly orthodox, if anti-papal and mildly reformist, late medieval Catholic. This is maintained in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary, some of which – like the heretical character of works by Simon Fish and William Tyndale that Anne gave to Henry – Bernard plays down, or entirely passes over (like her intervention in 1528 on behalf of the arrested evangelical book-runner, Robert Forman).” (2) Indeed, Forman does not get a mention by Bernard!

Indeed, when there is evidence to the contrary, Bernard sometimes simply leaves it out. If we were to argue in favor of Anne, we could use exhibit one – evidence of adultery on the part of Henry, with documentary evidence to back it up – to say that Bernard went after Anne Boleyn, arguing the victim of adultery is instead the adulteress!

Exhibit three. Anyone reading this book cannot get away from the fact that there is a clear bias against Anne, and women in general. For example, in his treatment of the divorce, he argues that it was Henry who was in charge of not sleeping with her, and that it was also that Anne was passive – both when it comes to religion, but even in the annulment of the marriage: “Anne’s was the conventional role of the woman who waited, and received less attention and a shorter letter than usual, while her husband-to-be pressed on with the hard work that would make their marriage possible.” “The conventional role of the woman?” Nothing more needs to be said...

Exhibit four. The biggest problem is, nevertheless, Bernard’s completely unscientific methodology. In the appendix, Bernard writes: “Again, a reading of Holbein’s Ambassadors which links it to Anne’s coronation – the French ambassadors stand on a Cosmati pavement, clearly referring to the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey where Anne was anointed – and concludes that Holbein’s first royal patron was Anne Boleyn, rests on a chain of circumstantial reasoning, does not explain why Anne rather than Henry should have commissioned it, and does not throw any direct light on the question of whether Holbein ever portrayed Anne.”

The above is some of the most grotesque academic writing ever. First of all, Bernard discusses the painting purely in an appendix, about potential portraits of Anne Boleyn. Is Bernard stupid or did he simply not reread when he wrote that The Ambassadors “does not throw any direct light on the question of whether Holbein ever portrayed Anne”? It is on par with saying that The Ambassadors does not throw any direct light on the moon landings… as it has nothing to do with it! In short, Bernard has created a false premise about The Ambassador and then pretends he is able to discredit it. Bernard leads the reader into cleverly designed cul-de-sacs, pretending The Ambassador debate is about:
- whether or not Anne was Holbein’s first royal patron;
- who commissioned it.
The debate about The Ambassadors is about so much more. Unsurprisingly therefore, Bernard’s bibliography does not include John North or Mary Hervey’s book on The Ambassadors. Such omissions are, in light of the conclusions he draws, serious academic negligence. So is the omission of any footnote which would enlighten the reader as to what specific “reading” he is referring to. At best, one could conclude that Bernard has no idea, nor has he ever studied, what The Ambassadors could be about.

In the final analysis, there are too many fatal mistakes in Bernard’s thesis, and it is surprising how few academics have taken him to ask on them. After precisely 200 pages, we still are none the wiser as to the reasons why Anne was beheaded. The only thing we do know, is that Bernard has a hunch about what may have happened!