So bit late to the party, but I finally got around to watching the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Oh my, that was good. I was expecting to like it because, hey, it’s the BBC, they handle period drama like a geek debates Tie-fighter specs: in obsessive detail and with a core of love. But I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so perfect. I think I’ve got a brand new crush on Peter Straughan, the screenwriter (who also wrote, with his late wife, the screenplay for Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor, an adaptation of which I’m also a massive fan), and I’m definitely crushing on Mark Rylance who plays Cromwell with perfect understated precision.
I’ve said it before, but I absolutely adore the book Wolf Hall. I love Bring Up The Bodies too, but it is a more compact story and told in a more straight-forward way, while Wolf Hall is a massive, politically charged, amazing book that blows my mind every time I re-read it. It bypasses all that sex and the head-choppings and affairs and gossip that so often make up the popular understanding of the court of Henry VIII, and instead goes straight for the politics. The massive cultural upheaval, the legal wrangling, the trade and financial impacts of the times. And it makes all of it fascinating, jaw-droppingly compelling from start to finish; a page-turner with divine prose.
Wolf Hall reminds just how sexy politics can be. It’s also the book to which just about every creative writing tutor I’ve had since 2009 draws upon to illustrate how to make the reader empathise with a difficult protagonist.
One teacher I had argued that we readers love Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, despite some of the dark and dastardly things he does, because Hilary Mantel gives us his abused-child backstory early and so our sympathy is set from that point on.
Another explained it was because Mantel surrounded him with characters we do love for their own genuinely good qualities – Cromwell’s wife, his daughters, his family and friends – and shows how loyal and dedicated they are to Cromwell, just how much they love him, plus importantly, how much he loves them. Hence we as readers see him through their eyes and love him too.
A third suggested it was because Cromwell, even though he does dark things, is pit against those who do even darker. Thomas More, all arrogance and privilege with a tendency not only to brutally torture in the name of his religion, but believe himself doing right when doing so. And of course, King Henry VIII himself, with his tendency to discard wives and advisers and those who love him the first moment they cannot give him whatever he demands.
Yet another (you see what I mean by this book being the example of choice of creative writing teachers everywhere – but with excellent reason) detailed how it was a trick of the prose. The Point of View at use. The books are in a flawless third person, but they’re so obsessively perched on Cromwell’s shoulder, so very closely held within his viewpoint, right inside his head, that as readers we know only the claustrophobic view of his world through his eyes and thus cannot fail but to relate to him. Kind of like a readers’ Stockholm Syndrome or something.
I don’t disagree with any of those assessments. There are damn good reasons just about every writing teacher I’ve had since Wolf Hall was published has referred to it as an illustrative guide of extraordinary writing – because the book is extraordinary. Indeed, I have marked all down in my mental notebook of writers’ tips and tricks, because reading Mantel is like that, a masterclass in how to put together amazing fiction. But there’s one more I’d like to add to that list of how to get your readers to love your dark and difficult protagonist.
Cromwell is smart. Not just smart, but brilliant. He can out-think and out-plot everyone around him. Of course, history being what it is, we know how the third book is going to end, and we get the suggestion of heading towards that at the end of Bring Up The Bodies – as also was very well shown at the end of the BBC TV series. With Cromwell beginning to understand that no matter how exceptional he is at out-thinking and out-politicking all those around him, there’s only ever one end for those like him who play politics in Henry’s court. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is at the top of his political game and enjoying it. By the end of Bring Up The Bodies, he’s still at the top of his game – better at it than ever, considering he’s just brought down a Queen – but you’re left with the sense all this human damage is now taking its toll. He isn’t having quite so much fun anymore.
The appeal of the smart-sharp protagonist is often underestimated. I’m not one for every-man heroes. They’re a bit dull, frankly. I like a dazzlingly intelligent hero, a sharp thinker to admire, the ones that might not always be great people, but they are great thinkers.
And yet, if Mantel’s Cromwell didn’t love his family or was loved by them, wasn’t pitted against those nastier than himself, didn’t have a tragic backstory to overcome, and perhaps if we didn’t have Mantel’s most wonderful prose to anchor us so deeply in his head, maybe his intellectual greatness wouldn’t have been enough to trap me into two long, complex, gorgeous books.
Or maybe it would. Who knows.
One last thought. I adore these books, particularly Wolf Hall, in the same way I adore another old favourite of mine, The Count of Monte Cristo. Edmond Dantes was another cunning schemer with an intellect dwarfing most of those around him, full of intensely clever plots and driven by cold, cold passion.
Think it’s time to read that one again.