Now that this season of Downton Abbey has concluded in the US, I’m already feeling a little out of sorts and lonely. During the gray, cold days of January and February, I’ve had Downton to look forward to each Sunday night. If only for an hour, I could lose myself in the Yorkshire countryside with the Crawley gang. So, normally I would be setting my sites on the next Masterpiece, but I have mixed emotions about the upcoming Wolf Hall.
I’ve no doubt it will be a spectacular presentation (aren’t all Masterpiece productions?) but the book upon which it is based gives me heartburn. It may be a bit presumptuous on my part, as a fledgling writer of historical fiction, but I am just going to say my piece: Hilary Mantel has got it terribly wrong.
Yes, Mantel received critical acclaim and two Booker Awards for her novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Yes, her prose is oftentimes brilliant and her grasp of the English language is enviable. I’ll even agree that the genre historical fiction does allow for, well, fiction. But the premise upon which she writes–that Thomas Cromwell was the thoughtful, caring New Adam of modern society is really too much to stomach. Maybe I could even let that slide, if in the process she did not slaughter the character of Sir Thomas More.
I have spent more years than I care to add up researching Thomas More for my novel, Mine Own Good Daughter. It is a novel told from the perspective of More’s eldest daughter, Meg. I wanted to explore this “man for all seasons” from the eyes of his daughter, whose fortunes and future rose and fell on her father’s decision to defy Henry VIII.
There are literally thousands of pages of extant writings, letters and peer accounts of Thomas More. None of them point to the cruel, cynical misogynist that Mantel presents. Instead, I found a man who loved his children intensely, ensured that they (including his daughters) received a stellar education and was a brilliant writer of humor, satire and theology. When he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, it was to Meg that he wrote of his fear and weakness. He depended on her advice and counsel. Does that sound like a man who detested and subjugated women?
Was Thomas More perfect? No. He lived in a violent time of unspeakable brutality and shifting alliances. While he served as Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII he did allow four men to be burned at the stake for heresy. Is that hard to reconcile with today’s mores? Absolutely. But it is only one part of a very complex man living in a violent time.
When I was beginning my novel, a priest counseled me to write the truth and show Thomas More “warts and all.” That advice has stayed with me. I am not in the business of writing hagiography, but historical fiction that remains true to the facts. Whether or not we care to accept it, I believe there is a responsibility in writing historical fiction. These are actual people we write about. Just because they are not here to speak for themselves does not mean we have carte blanche to commit slander. Playing games with the truth to push a particular narrative or just for sport does nothing to raise the bar of historical fiction. It does everything, in fact, to lower it.