I promised myself I wouldn’t blog about Wolf Hall. Everyone else is doing it. Yet, here I am, timing myself to twenty minutes for this. Because I loved Wolf Hall. I loved the book and I loved the first episode of the TV series. I think the candlelight works, I think it looks amazing, and, frankly, you could sell me most anything with Damien Lewis and Mark Rylance and I would be happy.
Wolf Hall has a bit of a woman problem, and it’s a familiar woman problem. In order to make Thomas Cromwell sympathetic, you have to oust Thomas More. You have to get rid of that image of kindly, noble, gentle Paul Schofield in A Man for All Seasons, lovingly educating his daughter in Humanist ways and standing up for his conscience.
One of the ways Mantel achieves this, in the books, is to give Cromwell a family life – and, personally, I found the opening paragraphs of Bring up the Bodies, stunningly poignant and brilliant. It opens with “His children are falling from the sky” and then shows that Cromwell’s hawks are named after his dead daughters. In the TV series, this family intimacy plays out in a scene where Cromwell sits with his daughter on his knee, letting her leaf through a gorgeous facsimile prayer book, while she comments that she’d like to learn Greek, as well as Latin. Kate Maltby, who’s been tweeting the series, has written a lovely review that comments on the historic validity of this, linking Cromwell’s daughter to other precocious young women educated in Greek. From the medieval side, I found both Cromwell’s closeness with his daughters, and his reading-aloud of his son’s letter, nicely authentic: I could see echoes of the Paston family there, and Rachel Moss has shown that our image of distant medieval fathers is misguided.
No, my problem is with Cromwell’s wife. You see, this scene is echoing bits of A Man for All Seasons: feminist papa, precocious daughter … someone has to represent the annoying intrusion of Tradition and Caution. And, just as in More’s household it’s his wife Alice, so too here, it’s Cromwell’s wife who looks dubiously instructs her daughter to leave her Latin learning for her breakfast. In the older film, More’s wife Alice is a caricature medieval Catholic woman, uninterested in More’s Humanism, emphatically rejecting to his offer to teach her to read. I’ve noted before that illiteracy this strikes a false note, it typically being medieval women who taught children to read. It belongs to a stereotype of medieval Catholicism as backwards and unbookish, a yoke energetic Humanist men (and their daughters) were throwing off, while their wives clung to it.
It’s slightly disappointing, then, in Wolf Hall, to see Elizabeth Cromwell lean across the breakfast table, disapprovingly, to hand her husband a parcel whose contents are obviously something subversive. “If you want to know,” he begins, and she cuts him off: “I don’t what to know”. It turns out that the parcel contains a book, an unbound New Testament in Tyndale’s translation. Cromwell eagerly proselytises:
“You should read it for yourself. It’s in English, that’s the point, not Latin. How can that be heresy? Read it and you’ll see how you’re misled. No mention of nuns, monks, relics, popes …”
This little speech, sounding a bit too much like a twenty-first century Biblical literalist’s view on the subject, gets shot down by Elizabeth: “My prayerbook is good reading.”
This is as neatly-drawn an opposition between (misleading, outdated Latin) Catholicism and Brave New English Proto-Protestantism as you could wish. For Cromwell, the austere, unbound, plain-looking English New Testament holds the promise of religious and social revolution, freedom from the lies of the medieval Church.
It bothers me that this scene feeds, subtly, into the twenty-first century idea of ‘The Medieval,’ which has become a code word for primitive, superstitious (and, often, Middle Eastern or Islamic) attitudes and actions. I don’t particularly like the gendering of religion in this way, in which women are repeatedly the representatives of a medieval Catholicism characterised by illiteracy and misleading superstition. I don’t like the way that it covers up a pretty well-known history of women as educators and book users. I’ll keep watching, but I’d like to know what you make of these quibbles.