I am reading a novel that’s part of a Wall Street Journal book club led by Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Gilbert cites this novel as a model for his new historical fiction work, The Signature of All Things. In Wolf Hall, Mantel tells the Tudor story from a more unusual angle–that of Thomas Cromwell. Usually cast as villain, Mantel’s Cromwell is like all of our modern heroes–neither good nor evil, but sympathetically human. He loves and mourns his wife, is loyal to his first master even as he falls (Wolsey), and is efficient no matter what the task, even breaking the will of old men (Fisher).
In Mantel’s hands, Cromwell becomes sympathetic and Thomas More, usually cast as martyr hero, as one-dimensionally dogmatic, misogynistic, and focused on his ego.
How interesting, I thought this morning as I read various characters debate the likelihood of More taking the oath to Henry’s succession plan after the birth of Elizabeth, that we can be brought to love and dislike the same historical figure through placing him or her in different lights.
I realize this is a novel. History itself should be drier, less emotive, but when it is, it is not compelling. The trend in history is to move toward a more novelistic approach, to engage our emotions, to bring historical figures to life using some license with the historical sources.
Here is where the musing really begins and intersects with more recent figures.
My grandfather was a wonderful man at the core. He loved his family and was extremely loyal to those he loved. He was also bigoted until presented with just the right argument or experience. He seemed to enjoy, at times, provoking family members with his bigotry and for much of my childhood was a slightly frightening figure who swore, blustered, and later even fought with my mother, who I thought would never cross him. And yet, when he passed away and we told stories about him, the blustering and bigotry took on a nostalgic glow, awash in the light of the love and loyalty, its hard edges eroded with each retelling.
My own father has recently passed and I find myself doing the same–celebrating all of the positives, softening the hard spots, and pushing away the year of outright crossness with everyone at the drop of a hat. How might someone who did not worship him, as I do, retell his story? Someone who met him in that year of crossness?
Is that what history comes down to? Whether or not the person telling the story loves the subject or not? Or what the teller needs to make of the subject? If I need George Washington to be a saintly patriot, I interpret him as a saintly patriot and minimize all contrary evidence? One can’t ignore it because information will out in this age, but minimize it, neutralize, cleanse (in the PR business).
On the other side, what happens when what we leave behind for interpretation are mere documents, fragments of our relationship to official entities? When those who remember the timbre of our voices and the snap in our eyes are no longer there to witness to our essence?
This leads me to the realization that now I am suffering not only a crisis of religious faith, but one of professional faith. Nothing is certain. Everything is slippery, subject to the whim of nothing. Of chance. Or an order I strain to see, but whose outlines I cannot even faintly discern.
Happy Sunday morning.