Every Tuesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
Historical fiction is one of my favorite areas for pleasure reading, and I particularly enjoy the English Tudor period. I’ve already read both installments of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series, and I was delighted to learn about the new PBS Masterpiece series, also titled Wolf Hall. Although I understand that historical fiction (and, to some extent, history), involve interpretation and sometimes downright invention, I always note how little has really changed since the 1500’s. People are still people.
Take Thomas Cromwell, for instance, the starring character of Wolf Hall. Played by Mark Rylance in the PBS rendition, he rises in the esteem of Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII by his cleverness in spite of humble (and shady) beginnings. In Episode 3, King Henry reminds Cromwell that he can make—and unmake—his servants’ power. And, indeed, anyone who knows the ending of Cromwell’s story sees the truth in this royal assertion of control. Already Henry has orchestrated the demise of Wolsey, Cromwell’s mentor, and celebrated with a masque representing the cardinal burning in hell (Episode 2). Henry may be a rare tyrant (read, serial killer), but his depravity matches his power in scale.
Cromwell’s story reminds me that even the most meritorious subjects don’t necessarily gain their due, and, in Episode 1, he loses his wife and children to the whim of illness. Neither royal influence nor wealth can restore those losses, and that’s a reality both Cromwell and Henry know all too well. By all historical accounts I’ve read, Henry lived in terror of illness, perhaps because he gained the throne by a rapid sickness that killed his elder brother Arthur. Not even a monarch can outwit death; as desperate as he is to impose mortality on others, Henry still faced the same fate. So to watch Wolf Hall, or to engage with history or historical fiction, is to understand all human lives within this balance of ordinariness and extraordinariness. Most of the characters are dead, in spite of their great or evil deeds.
And many of the characters soon vanish into anonymity. Since so much of my historical fiction comes from a feminist perspective, I read and think about the ways that women—often even rich and powerful women—get excluded from historical accounts. But even those histories are largely the records of the ruling classes, not the everyday people who don’t much care about Cromwell or the king or the king’s “Great Matter,” so long as there’s bread and decent weather for the crops. Many of the ordinary people of their day would never have even seen Henry or Cromwell, though their influence would have been exerted all the same. We see those folks in Wolf Hall and other works of historical fiction too, in the crowds and the masses, nameless and often voiceless.
Though Wolf Hall is set in a time period five centuries ago, in another nation, with another form of government, at times it feels like little has changed. People live and die. In between they eat and sleep and build families. If they are privileged, they bicker about religion. They try to make a living. They, like us, are sometimes greedy and cruel and clever and sometimes good. As a viewer of Wolf Hall, I am one of many, just as in my life I am part of the crowd, part of the masses. I’m not famous or extraordinary, except to those who love me and know me best.
That’s the way it is for most of us. We’re Henry, scaled down, with the power to be petty or kind. And we, unlike Henry, will likely fade into anonymity, lacking the reach for the evil he committed. For most of us, as children of God and earthly parents, will anonymously raise anonymous children. In the eyes of the world, we’re ordinary, though we’re really not so different from many of the people who populate the pages of books like Wolf Hall. And yet, in the eyes of God, we are known and loved, with our names written in the book of life that stretches beyond history and into the church eternal.