Sunday, November 8, 2009

Thomas Cromwell and Gerolamo Vano

The following review of Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning novel about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, is quoted from Abigail Nussbaum's excellent blog, Asking the Wrong Questions (although it begins with a passage that Abigail takes from another review by Dan Hartland). It is a long extract. I have set it in Arial to indicate the extent of the quoted text more precisely, and readers are encouraged to consult Abigail's original review here:

As Dan Hartland points out, Mantel makes a virtue out of Cromwell's lack of conviction:

Those around Cromwell are characterised by an allegiance to a system: More’s Catholicism, Norfolk’s feudalism, Wolsey’s royalism. Cromwell, on the other hand, has an almost Nietzschean approach. “I distrust all systematizers, ” wrote the philosopher, “and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” Mantel’s Cromwell likewise believes in personal respect and education, a fully humanist perspective which sets him at odds with the medievalised England to which he is born. Mantel sees his meritocratic rise – from smith’s son to soldier, trader to merchant, lawyer to Lord Chancellor – as a symbol of the birth of our modern age.

I would go even further and say that Mantel makes a virtue out of Cromwell's lack of integrity and sense of personal dignity as well (the latter is presumably linked to his humble origins, which leave him, unlike the nobles around him, indifferent to his family's honor). Several times over the course of the novel, Cromwell visits prisoners condemned for their words--the heretic John Frith, condemned by More; the self-proclaimed prophetess Elizabeth Barton, who had threatened Henry with divine retribution for casting off Catherine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyn; and finally, More himself. Each time, he counsels the prisoners to lie, recant, and compromise their principles in order to save themselves. "I would advise anyone to get a few more weeks of life, by any means they can," he tells Barton, advising her to 'plead her belly' in order to delay her execution, and the final conflict of the novel, between Cromwell and More, hinges on More's refusal to compromise his immortal soul by swearing an oath acknowledging Henry as the head of the church in England and the legality of his marriage to Anne. What in A Man for All Seasons was treated as the crowning glory of More's saintliness is, in Wolf Hall, described as the epitome of his arrogance and self-regard, with Cromwell, instead of the devil trying to tempt More away from righteousness, portrayed as a humanistic angel trying to save More from himself.

This description of Cromwell as an avatar of modernity, and moreover of a very particular - we might call it Nietzschean - idea of modernity, is reminiscent of my own characterisation of Gerolamo Vano in Pistols! Treason! Murder! as a man who stands not only for aggressive indifference to pious convention, but also for unlimited cynicism, maximum exploitation of a limited talent by ruthless opportunism, an almost ascetic indifference to the suffering of others, and a willingness to exploit the fear and credulity of his employers for his own gain (see here). I do not mean to imply that my book is the equal of Mantel's. Rather, I have 'prefigured' or 'emplotted' the past (or more accurately, the relationship between past and present) in similar ways to Mantel.

The will to a system is a lack of integrity: this criticism applies to historians as well as to the subjects of their enquiries.

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