I’m on record as loving Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall and the sequel Bring up the Bodies, and from what I’ve managed to see of the BBC miniseries based on the novels (it’s not been aired on this side of the Atlantic yet, so don’t ask, don’t tell), I’m loving that as well. The series has a brilliant script that echoes a lot of Mantel’s text, and inspired acting and directing that manages to bring to life a novel where so much happens inside the head of the main character, Thomas Cromwell. On screen, you can’t hear what Cromwell is thinking as you can in Mantel’s book, but you can certainly read a lot of it in Mark Rylance’s eyes and every tilt of his head.
What made the original novel great, and the reason I loved it, is the same reason some people hate it — it took a character who has generally been perceived as one of the villains of the Tudor piece, Henry VIII’s sometime right-hand-man Cromwell, and made him the hero. Not the “hero” in the sense that the book ever tried to deny or whitewash the less-than-savoury things Cromwell did in his king’s service. Rather, because the story is told from Cromwell’s point of view, with access to his thoughts and his private life, we see his own reasons and justification for the things he does (including his sincerely held Protestant faith). It’s a pretty certain bet that if Cromwell had written an account of his own life, he would have come across as heroic and worthy of sympathy: we are all, after all, the heroes of our own stories. I love it when a writer of historical fiction is able to get us into the head of a character we think we “know” through history and tell the story in a different way.
The first work of historical fiction I ever read and loved as an adult was Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, an epic, sprawling re-imagining of the story of Richard III, another character who is usually cast as one of the villains of English history. With Richard in Sunne, as with Cromwell in Wolf Hall, we see the story from the point of view of the character so frequently maligned, and a different interpretation is placed on events as we see them through his eyes.
Since then, I’ve read other novels set during the Wars of the Roses which took the more traditional view of Richard as the ruthless, ambitious villain, and been intrigued to see how the exact same historical event, well-documented in the sources, can be interpreted in a different light depending on how you view the motives of those involved. Another great example of this: I don’t always love Philippa Gregory’s novels, but what she did with Margaret Beaufort in The Red Queen worked brilliantly for me, humanizing a character who nearly always comes across as despicable.
Villain or hero is, after all, all in the interpretation. Historians can argue, and do argue, for generations about the motives behind a particular act (who really killed the Princes in the Tower? Why did Cromwell rise and then fall so swiftly in Henry’s favour?) but only a novelist can help us re-image the story as it might have looked to the people living through it.
This is why, as both a reader and writer of historical fiction, I roll my eyes — vigorously — at articles like this one, which asserts that Wolf Hall’s depiction of the (literally) sainted Thomas More is “wrong.” Is it wrong, or is it just a different perspective, to show a generally-admired historical character in an unpleasant light? The message that comes across clearly in Wolf Hall (even more clearly in the book, where there’s more time to develop it than in the miniseries) is not some kind of universal statement about what kind of man More was — it’s that Thomas Cromwell really, really disliked More, a dislike that was religious, political and also personal. So if Cromwell is telling the story, then of course More is going to come off as kind of a prick.
We see this all the time in our present-day lives: do you know a single person, famous or obscure, who is either universally loved or hated? Probably not. That jerk in your office who spouts obnoxious comments may have a wife and kids who love him and friends who think he’s hilarious, while that saintly old lady at church may have been driving her daughter-in-law to drink for years. We are all complex and multilayered, and different people see us differently. Guaranteed there’s at least one person in my life who thinks I’m a saint and a few who think I’m a jerk — and lots in between. And nobody, except for me, ever knows what I’m thinking or what my motive is behind anything I do.
Now, compound that complexity with the fact that hundreds of years have passed, all these people are long dead, and all we have left are (sometimes sketchy and contradictory) records of things they did, and in some cases things they said or wrote. Of course there are different possible interpretations of every historical character. The job of the historical fiction writer, when writing about well-known historical characters, is to find a fresh and interesting way to tell the story, not to unthinkingly rehash the prejudices of the last five hundred years. This is what Mantel did, and did brilliantly, in Wolf Hall. You may not, of course, agree with an author’s assessment of a historical character, but saying “I don’t agree with the conclusions she drew from the historical record” is a much more nuanced statement than “She got that wrong!”
This is not, by the way, the same thing as a historical fiction writer changing or misrepresenting known facts. I’m on record as saying (though not all writers would agree) that a writer should not include anything in a story that contradicts well-documented fact. But this is different from re-interpreting the facts in light of the way the writer has imagined the historical character’s personality and motives. To use an example much closer to home than anything Tudor, it doesn’t bother me in the least that in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams Wayne Johnson images motives, private thoughts and even a fictional lifelong frenemy for Joey Smallwood that plays around with the way many of us in Newfoundland have traditionally imagined our Father of Confederation. But it drives me insane that he sets an important scene on Harbour Drive in St. John’s in 1916 — when the street that is now Harbour Drive would have been well under water for another fifty years after that.
My personal creed for historical fiction, whether I’m reading it or writing it is: you work with the facts as given. Richard III had his nephews declared illegitimate and took the throne for himself. Nobody can deny that. But did he do that because of naked ambition or a genuine conviction that his kingship would be better for England — or a messy combination of both? Nobody knows, but the writer of historical fiction can imagine, and her imagined version cannot be “wrong.” Thomas Cromwell engineered both the rise of Anne Boleyn to the throne, and her fall from grace a few short years later. Again, those are the facts. But what Cromwell may have thought of Anne herself, or of Henry on whose orders he made her rise and fall — no historical record can tell us that. Only a novelist can. And she has. And, like it or dislike it — you’re free to do either — I don’t think you can say it’s wrong.
Unless, of course, I’m wrong.