Thomas Cromwell grew rich while he ruthlessly tortured and beheaded countless people, and manipulated a king of England. Thomas Cromwell adored his wife and children, took in orphans, fed the poor at his gate, and encouraged the Protestant Reformation. Thomas Cromwell, a large, orange-striped cat, lives peacefully with Wolsey and two canines at Downtown Abbey.
So many Cromwells to fill the mind!
While I painted “Friends for Frances,” I listened to my husband’s Great Courses class: “The History of England from the Tudors to the Stuarts” – entertaining lectures presented by Robert Bucholz, a modern historian with a sense of humor, passion and curiosity about the lives of common people, as well as royals.
And then we succumbed to evenings with “The Tudors,” long-form television complete with historical inaccuracies and startling accuracies – brutality (blanket-over-my-eyes scenes), bad medicine, and head lice, buffered by fine costumes of velvet and ermine, jewels and poufy hats.
My Tudor immersion worsened. Having watched “The White Queen” (gateway drug) before “The Tudors”, I grew curious about Philippa Gregory’s many historical novels. Soon in the car a plummy English voice narrated the (romantic) story of “The Other Boleyn Girl.” And I returned to Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell (so appealing he is), and read again “Wolf Hall.”
We have a lot of fun here talking about the characters and events in this period of history, so drenched in both significance and soap opera, as we ponder which Tudor version might be right (assuming there is a right).
What were Anne and Mary Boleyn really like? How annoying was Thomas More? Did Henry inspire love in his queens, or were they solely pawns manipulated by families and nations for power? Some characters transcend all the iterations – Queen Catherine, unfailingly gracious and devout (sometimes attractive and other times not), Henry, petulant, childish, and corpulent (history), but studly (television). Not to mention the elusive Cromwell.
The television “Tudors” engages the imagination and skill of so many people – actors and the creator Michael Hirst, of course, and people to manage the horses and the digital effects, to keep the bosoms heaving, and the king’s behavior in line. People to check the historical settings – getting the curtseys and the miladys and the food and the dances correct. Cameramen and sound guys, stylists with hair extensions – a zillion people making video magic.
And then there is Mantel, (described in Larissa MacFarquhar’s excellent 2012 New Yorker profile ) alone, and thoughtful in her workspace: “I don’t think one ever quite learns to trust the process,” she says. “I feel, what if I wake up tomorrow and I can’t do it anymore? I know I’ll always be able to write, in the sense of having a robust style that’s sufficient to the occasion, and I know that books can be got onto the page by craft, but the thing that makes a phrase that fizzes on the paper — you always fear that may not be there any longer, because, after all, you did nothing to deserve it. You did nothing to contrive it. It’s just there. You don’t understand it, it’s out of your control, and it could desert you.”
And still she does it, page after page.
Now I’m rereading “Bring Up the Bodies,” second in Mantel’s Tudor trilogy (much pleasure resides in revisiting excellent things in this age of constant new). But eagerly await the third book (“The Mirror and The Light”), though I will be sad to see the end of Mantel’s Cromwell.
Aah, but also – another version of the whole story will appear in 2015, when the BBC presents “Wolf Hall” in a six episode series!