One of the nuggets I gleaned from attending the Algonkian Writers’ Conference last December in Manhattan was that when it comes to historical romance, it’s the Tudors or bust.
It figures. Working backward, there was Elizabeth I, England’s greatest ruler; her sister, the pathetic, misguided “Bloody Mary”; their baby bro, Edward VI; and, of course, the daddy from Hell, Henry VIII, with those – count ’em – six wives. No dramatist could conjure such symmetrical marital disaster – Catherine of Aragon, annulled (Joanne Whalley, movie in her few scenes); Anne Boleyn, beheaded; Jane Seymour, dead in childbirth; Anne of Cleves, annulled; Katherine Howard, beheaded; and Catherine Parr, survived Henry, but wait, would remarry and, you guessed it, wind up dead in childbirth.
Historian David Starkey (“Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII”) once told me that of the half-dozen, Catherine of Aragon was the only one Henry ever really loved. But his quest for a son, for proof of his manhood and for liberation from papal Rome and the memory of his older brother, Arthur, who had been Catherine’s husband, drove him into the arms of the bewitching Anne Boleyn, linchpin of the six wives’ psychodrama. Did he use Anne to gain control of the Church in England or was he, as Starkey said, so in love with her that he was willing to renounce his role as Defender of the (Roman Catholic) Faith? Perhaps a bit of both?
Anne’s rise and fall is told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell – the blacksmith’s son-turned-chancellor – in Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” (She’s at work on the last book in the trilogy.) Naturally, PBS’ “Masterpiece” couldn’t resist. “Wolf Hall” (April 5 through May 10) dramatizes the first two books, with British theater star Mark Rylance as Cromwell, Damian Lewis (“Homeland”) as Henry and Claire Foy (“Little Dorrit”) as Anne. “Wolf Hall” – the title refers to rival Jane Seymour’s familial estate but suggests the den of wolves the Tudors were – is a daring conceit. For what makes men like Cromwell effective, their ability to manipulate and maneuver behind the scenes, is what can make them potentially boring front and center. (Imagine the story of Bill and Hillary Clinton told from the viewpoint of their accountant.) The beauty of the books and the miniseries is that we enter Cromwell’s mind to meet a man weary of and disgusted by the power games men play but unable to relinquish them.
The advantage – or disadvantage – of seeing this story through Cromwell’s eyes is that we get different interpretations of other major characters than we’re used to seeing. Thomas More (Anton Lesser of PBS “Mystery!’s” “Endeavor”) is a particular revelation – no Roman Catholic saint, no “Man For All Seasons” but a sadomasochistic, hypocritical snob. (One of the running themes in the miniseries is the notion of Cromwell settling old scores with those who’ve snubbed him or wronged those he served, like Cardinal Wolsey, played sympathetically by Jonathan Pryce.)
Damian Lewis’ Henry is unlike any we have ever seen. This is the fit, fine-boned Henry of his youth, considered one of the handsomest princes in Christendom. (I’m discounting Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ interpretation in Showtime’s “The Tudors,” because his brunet looks and petulant performance brought little to the Titian-haired Henry.) Lewis is a past master at making monsters intelligible. (See “Homeland” and “The Forsyte Saga.”) Yet his Henry – more subtle than others – remains an insecure monster.
Anne, however, never changes. She’s a witch and a bitch. Or maybe she was an itch that men just couldn’t scratch?
Mean, flirtatious, full of life – she was an early Rules Girl, keeping Henry’s sexual appetites at bay in her pursuit of a ring and a crown. But what’s desirable in a mistress, Sharkey also told me, can be deadly in a wife. Like many with a high opinion of themselves, she overplayed her hand and it cost her her head.
Still, she loved her daughter, Elizabeth – her ironic revenge on Henry – and knew how to make an exit, dying with real courage. (The historically accurate depiction of her beheading in “Wolf Hall” is perhaps the most gripping to date.)
Anne is often contrasted adversely with the saintly Catherine of Aragon and the obedient (at least to Henry) Jane Seymour. Doesn’t matter. They all ended badly, because Henry held all the cards. Men did in those days. And maybe they still do. When it comes to the games men play, women tend to lose not only because they have traditionally had less access to power and money but because they want men more than men want them. Desire is the key. It’s the foundation of any religion: Those who desire the least have the most power. Even on the scaffold, the haughty Anne kept turning around and looking up – at a Henry who never appeared to save her.
In a narrative filled with ironies, the wife who made out the best was the only one who was willing to let go, the seemingly dumpy Anne of Cleves, who turned a disastrous short-lived marriage into a successful annulment, complete with a household and clothing allowance of her own, special status at court and a solid relationship with her stepchildren.
This Anne is a reminder that financial independence isn’t enough for a woman. She needs to be emotionally independent as well.
Anne of Cleves would prove to be the downfall of Cromwell, who had been the downfall of Anne Boleyn and so many others. (But that’s another story, presumably told in Mantel’s third book.)
“Those who are made can be unmade,” Anne Boleyn warns Cromwell in the series “Wolf Hall.”
Her fatal flaw was the inability to understand that those words also applied to herself.