The court of King Henry VIII provides a fascinating framework on which a master stylist such as Ford Madox Ford (or Hilary Mantel) may hang their art. There is intrigue enough for a thriller, marriages enough for romance, and high ideas enough in the politics, religion, and literature of the time to supply, and possibly overwhelm, even the most gifted writers. Mantel focused on Thomas Cromwell, bucking the historical trend of villainizing the man, investing him with a noble, even democratic, constitution. The man, in Hilary’s telling, pulled himself from nothing to be the maker of kings on an unbendable will and almost limitless talents:
He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything. (Wolf Hall)
Mantel’s Wolf Hall is, reputedly, the first of a planned trilogy. My hunch is that she took more than a little inspiration from The Fifth Queen, also a trilogy.
Where Mantel gives us Cromwell’s perspective, Ford Madox Ford chose Katharine Howard for his lead. Like Mantel, Ford lists the considerable talents of his star:
She had some Greek, more than a little French, she could judge a good song, she could turn a verse in Latin or the vulgar tongue. She professed to be able to ride well, to be converseant with the terms of venery, to shoot with the bow, and to have studied the Fathers of the Church.
The resonance between the passages is but one example of many where Ford’s version is amplified in Mantel’s rendering. Mantel made Cromwell her hero, but Ford held him in some regard as well. In his non-fiction, Ford approvingly cited a scholar who described Cromwell as “a mighty minister & a consummate diplomatist, skilfully [sic] balancing the Powers one against another & crushing out seditions with a strong but necessary & beneficient hand.” (“Creative History and the Historic Sense”, p. 7) The essay excoriates Professor Goldwin Smith for, among other things, condemning Cromwell on no better evidence than “the accusations of his enemies, for Cromwell was not even tried.” (p. 7). The implication is that Cromwell was, at least, no worse than other men.
Ford says about Henry that he “was a man very much of his age.” (p. 8.) Ford’s characters take a very similar view of Cromwell, such as when Katharine Howard expresses distain for him:
“Men are not such villains.”
“They are as occasion makes them,” [Throckmorton] answered with his voice of a philosopher. “What manner of men these times breed you should know if you be not a fool.”
Mantel’s Cromwell was ruthless when circumstances demanded it and Ford’s characters have a similar view. I like this particular admonishment of Katharine for her idealism.
“It is folly to be too proud to fight the world with the world’s weapons.”
Mantel’s minute focus on Cromwell is matched by Ford’s examination of his fictional Katharine Howard. Katharine arrives at Henry VIII’s court idealistically naïve. The spy Throckmorton tries to disabuse her of simplistic notions of good and evil:
”But your eyes are so clear,” he sighed. “They see the black andwhite of a man. The grey they miss. And you are slow to learn. Nevertheless, already you have learned that here we have no yea-nay world of evil and good…”
“No,” she said, “that I have not learned, nor never shall.”
“Oh, aye,” he mocked at her. “You have learned that the Bishop of Winchester, who is on the side of your hosts of heaven, is a knave and a fool. You have learned that I, whom you have accounted a villain, am for you, and a very wise man. You have learned that Privy Seal, for whose fall you have prayed these ten years, is, his deeds apart, the only good man in this quaking place.”
The conflict in this first installment of the trilogy is between Katharine’s uncompromising views on good and evil and the realities of English politics. One gets the sense that she will be every bit as tragic a figure as Mantel’s Cromwell. Katherine’s are good and laudable principles, but either she or they must be ground down between the stones of national and religious politics.
Ford’s style is impeccable. The above quotes capture his ability to put passably 16th Century language into the mouths of his characters without sounding either ridiculous or counterfeit. The dialogue is simply beautiful.
Likewise, his treatment of minor characters adds depth and flavor to these high level intrigues. An old man is angry with Cromwell for building a wall through his garden and gives vent to his son and a printer. The scene feels intimate and real.
“A wall,” [the printer] muttered; “my Lord Privy Seal hath set up a wall against priestcraft all round these kingdoms—”
“Therefore you would have him welcome to forty feet of my garden?” the old man drawled. “He pulls down other folks’ crucifixes and sets up his own walls with other folks’ blood for mortar.”
The printer said darkly:
The old man pulled his nose and glanced down.
“We were all Papists in my day.”
Early vignettes like this one acclimate the reader to time and place sufficiently that the novel feels dark and dank. However accurate the history presented is, it becomes a lived history and, for better or worse, all the more real because of that. Ford would say this as it should be:
For in their really higher manifestations History & Fiction are one: they are documented, tolerant, vivid; their characters live & answer & react one upon another each after his own sort. Fiction indeed, so long as it is not written with a purpose, is Contemporary History & History is the same thing as the Historic Novel, as long as it is inspired with the Historic Sense…the Historic Novel with a wide outlook upon peoples & upon kings. (“Creative History and the Historic Sense”, p. 13)
The Fifth Queen is, certainly, a Historic Novel. I would recommend it to anyone awaiting Mantel’s next installment. As proof of my sincerity, I plan to read the remainder of the two trilogies in tandem.