Wolf Hall and The Honest Politician

During BBC2’s Wolf Hall, I found myself trying to guess when Damian Lewis would turn up on screen as the 32 inch waisted Henry VIII. My prediction was for the last ten minutes of the programme, this being primetime TV drama, where plot development is often saved up for the end and used as a cliffhanger. I was more or less right: there was a glimpse of Lewis in a Catherine of Aragon trial scene, looking suitably annoyed and standing like a Holbein Henry VIII, but the confrontation with Cromwell was saved for last. In the dying minutes of the programme, right on cue, there was Henry, inspecting some topiary with a gaggle of polite courtiers and Théoden from The Lord of the Rings. Established already as an outsider at court, Cromwell hovers at the edge of this ornamental garden, and Henry breaks away from the topiary in order to speak to him. In what follows, we are treated to a cliché of political and historical drama: the ‘verbal sparring’ scene.

Typically, this scene involves a character cutting to the chase in a war of words with a social superior who unexpectedly finds the whole encounter charming, because everybody else that they speak to is a cowardly sycophant and /or self-interested machiavel. Cromwell, we were told, has form as a truth-speaking maverick, having once been the only person in the entirety of the Henrician court to have any sense of the strategic risks involved in an invasion of France. Six years later, in the topiary garden, he is still apparently the only one who has thought with any honesty about this problem, presumably because everybody else is so absorbed in looking at hedges. Lewis’s Henry is amused and intrigued by Cromwell’s unapologetic stance on France, and his wisecracks about fiscal policy. As one reviewer puts it, ‘Henry seemed tickled to be so comprehensively wrong-footed’.

The character that charms authority with their honesty is a familiar trope from all sorts of genres of literature and drama. It is traceable in post-Enlightenment narratives about love and class, from Elizabeth Bennet mocking Mr Darcy to Han Solo’s antagonistic relationship with Princess Leia. In the context of historical fiction and drama, it is similarly the go-to means by which to establish sympathy between protagonists who are otherwise divided by significant social difference. Most recently, in ITV’s The Great Fire, Samuel Pepys was presented as the only person in London willing to tell Charles II that a big fire is a bad thing – coincidentally, every time he did so, he interrupted the monarch strolling distractedly through some topiary. If there’s one thing we can learn from this, it’s that ornamental gardening is no aid to governance.

But maybe there’s something else that we can learn here, about what makes Mantel’s Cromwell so attractive in 2015. Wolf Hall the novel is extremely sympathetic to Cromwell as the enlightened underdog, and the narrative follows his thoughts throughout. The ‘verbal sparring’ scene of the TV adaption is taken almost verbatim from the novel, where Cromwell’s thought processes explain his verbal tactics: ‘There’s no point backing off; do that and Henry will chase you down’ (p. 181). In the TV adaption, we don’t hear Cromwell’s thoughts, but we only see incidents to which Cromwell himself has access. Aligned with this likeable outsider, we want to believe him, agree with him, and see him as honest.

I doubt we would like this Cromwell quite so much if he was more like the ideal courtier discussed in Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier), first published in Italy in 1528, and well known across Europe in the sixteenth century. The Book of the Courtier advises that courtiers should practice ‘sprezzatura’:

‘And that is to eshew as much as a man may, and as a sharp and dangerous rock, Affectation or curiosity, and, to speak a new word, to use in everything a certain Recklessness, to cover art withal, and seem whatsoever he doth and sayeth to do it without pain, and, as it were, not minding it.’
(The Book of the Courtier, trans. Thomas Hoby, 1561)

Sprezzatura is here a kind of disguise, ‘to cover art withal’; the OED defines the word as ‘ease of manner; studied carelessness’. In the novel, Mantel makes light of the performativity of sprezzatura as irrelevant to the ugly realities of court life, showing Cromwell joking about Castiglione’s work while the king ‘unleashes an unregal yell of laughter’ (p. 401). The honest Cromwell of Wolf Hall is the antithesis to Castiglione’s courtier: although he is not above sensible strategic scheming, he doesn’t need to ‘cover art withal’, because he is genuinely artless. The ‘verbal-sparring’ scene on the edge of the topiary garden proves his unflappable integrity and distance from ornamental triviality.

Mantel’s Cromwell offers a fantasy of the honest politician whose common sense comes from the streets and is amenable to the most tyrannical of rulers. Given the current climate of profound cynicism about the political process and ruling elite, it is perhaps unsurprising to find a vision of political integrity at the heart of a bestselling novel and primetime TV series. It will be interesting to see how Mantel handles the crumbling of this fantasy in the final instalment of the trilogy, due to be published this year.


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