Avid historical fiction/television buffs probably know that a BBC miniseries adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall debuted on Masterpiece. As I mentioned in my post about The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, I’m no fan of Mantel’s. However, this piece in The Washington Post got me contemplating (as the title says) “How ‘Wolf Hall’ will entertain millions – and threaten to distort history in the process.”
The author Gregory Wolfe (and what an ironic name!) suggests that writers of historical fiction have some responsibility to expose real history to their readers, and barring that are culpable for basically propaganda. While Wolfe seems to be among the anti-Thomas Cromwell congregation, he does have a point that Mantel is pushing an anti-Catholic agenda that may heavily conflict with historical facts. If I hadn’t read this article, however much I did or didn’t like the book, I wouldn’t have necessarily thought it to be untruthful just over-dramatized. And maybe it is true, in which case I congratulate her on voicing another marginalized perspective on a controversial figure. No human is entirely bad or good, so Cromwell can both be a self-serving bully and a pragmatic modernizer.
I certainly don’t want to curtail a novelist’s agency or imagination, but this is part of the reason I try to read a variety of fiction and non-fiction on topics I’m interested in, to avoid an author’s inherent bias towards the subject. So while I hope that people enjoy the newest entry in period dramas, I also want them to be aware of potential inaccuracy and take what they’re seeing with a grain of salt. One man’s martyr is another’s villain.