Adventures in Cultural Consumption:

Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

At the church I attended last year in central New Jersey, I had the good fortune to have an exceptionally talented pastor who did a good job of leavening a serious dose of theology in with her usual more cheery disposition. One sermon I remember in particular concerned the Jacob and Esau story wherein Jacob tricks Esau and God seems to be cool with that. Being a sensible sort, she wondered along with most of us why God would favor Jacob even though he was prepared to lie and cheat to get what he wanted. Well, she asked, who exactly was the favor supposed to go to? Esau agreed to sell his birthright, after all, and expected someone else to go and get it back for him after he'd lost it. Rebekah was not a model mother, plotting with Jacob. And Isaac showed just how little he cared about who would get the birthright by the casual way in which he granted it. So, surprise: nobody actually deserves the birthright. They're all kind of bad people.

And I suspect this is why Hilary Mantel has been ruffling so many feathers with her series of books on Thomas Cromwell: everyone in them is kind of a bad person. Katharine of Aragon is stubborn and insensitive, Anne Boleyn conniving; Henry VIII mercurial; Cardinal Wolsey unwilling to accept the facts of the case; Thomas More cruel and contemptuous of everyone. In Bring Up the Bodies, the old English families (secretly or not so secretly Catholic) too caught up in their own sense of offended honor; the men who are killed for having an affair with Anne too stupid to realize how dangerous their game has been, etc etc. It's true that Cromwell gets a more sympathetic portrait than some of these other figures, but it's a portrait that should be familiar: he's Don Draper meets Tony Soprano. He's a bad person with many fascinating and charming qualities. But still a bad person.

This is what rankles: history and realism get set against hagiography, and people are reluctant to admit that those they put a lot of store in are not such great people. I've long been of the belief that A Man for All Seasons is a kind of historical malfeasance, making a virtue out of More's stubbornness, reading it as conscience, when it is in fact mostly a product of his own arrogant belief no one could outsmart him. I think the case is rather more like Bring Up the Bodies puts it: there is hardly a man who more deservedly sent himself to his own death and, I might add, few for whom the irony is richer (though Thomas Cromwell is up there himself). But the man's a saint, and a great champion of 'conscience,' and no one will ever lose betting on the willingness of people to believe whatever happens to be convenient for them.

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