A Man for All Treasons: Crimes by and Against the Tudor State in the Novels of Hilary Mantel
Martha C. Nussbaum, Richard H. McAdams and Alison L. LaCroix, eds., Fatal Fictions: Crime in Law and Literature, Forthcoming
28 Pages Posted: 1 Mar 2015 Last revised: 4 Mar 2015
Date Written: February 27, 2015
This essay, written for a forthcoming volume titled Fatal Fictions: Crime in Law and Literature (Martha Nussbaum, Richard McAdams & Alison LaCroix, eds.), examines the crime of treason as depicted in Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). In the novels, Mantel provides a corrective to the enduringly popular view of Thomas Cromwell as at best a Tudor-era fixer, and at worst as a murderer and torturer – a view made famous by Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons (1960). Instead, Mantel’s Cromwell is the industrious creator of the modern administrative state. In this characterization, Mantel follows in the scholarly path of Geoffrey Elton, whose Tudor Revolution in Government (1953) rehabilitated Cromwell by arguing that he reformed English government by replacing personal rule with modern bureaucracy and systematizing the royal finances. In different ways, both Mantel’s and Elton’s account rebut the image of Cromwell as a criminal. But I argue that Mantel’s Cromwell in fact should be seen as representing two species of crime: crimes against the state, in the form of treason; and crimes by the state, in the form of espionage and torture. The novels present both forms of crime as occurring at the same historical moment in which the modern state was being formed. Because crimes against the state and by the state both presuppose the existence of the state itself, Mantel’s and Elton’s modernizing Cromwell may not be as distinct from Bolt’s devious Cromwell as the competing accounts would suggest.
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