Thursday, 8 December 2011
Why is Thomas Cromwell like Forrest Gump?
So I've just finished Wolf Hall (above), the first part of Hilary Mantel's masterpiece about the 1530s and the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell. OK, I know I'm late on this one, but I've got a lot to do, all right?
It's been showered with awards. Critics loved it. Historians have said how it opens up the character of the King's first minister, Thomas Cromwell, after years of seeing him as a robotic business machine through his letters, or - worse, with the Victorians - a villain to set alongside the saintly Thomas More. Cromwell emerges into the light from the dark.
I loved it. It was dense, sensitive, empathetic, powerful, dangerous, subversive. All those things. But as the book wore on, I tired of Cromwell. It's harder to paint a character sympathetically when you're portraying their period of power, I grant you. Earlier in the book, when Cromwell is caught up in the fall of his mentor Cardinal Wolsey, it's easier to feel for him. When he's running the country and basically ordering people's deaths, it's harder. But I felt that somewhere, deep down, Mantel couldn't let go of More, his obstinate silence and refusal to obey the King becoming gradually something sneakingly admirable. And she couldn't hide the rage and the revenge that she felt lurked deep down in Cromwell's soul.
Anyway. What did this remind me of? Forrest Gump.
No, stop, don't navigate away.
There, too, we were presented with a very ambivalent 'hero' - someone praised as embodying the American dream like a President (no less), but who in fact often looked much more like 'a pitiful stooge' in many ways, running across the continent and taking part in inane sports for no reason whatsoever that we can see. I laughed myself silly at this incredibly successful satire while other Britons were nonplussed by its apparently simple-minded celebration of Americana.
Perhaps I'm just partisan. I would have regretted the passing of Catholic England (since you ask). But I felt that Cromwell's darker and darker glimmerings may have played a trick on the readers just like Gump played on its audiences. Celebrate him? Rediscover him? Reader, it's not as simple as that.