Thursday, October 25, 2012

Something About Mary

At my back I hear Procrastination's Leaden Wagon drawing near, but really I need to finish reading this book.  I'm in the latter half of Hilary Mantel's award-winning historical novel Wolf Hall, about the 16th century lawyer and courtier Thomas Cromwell.  I decided to read it because so many people were raving about it, and while it's a compelling read and a masterful piece of writing, I don't get the excitement.  Mantel reminds me of Cecelia Holland in her manner; Holland is usually bloodier, though Mantel doesn't hide the violence of Tudor England -- she just isn't quite as explicit about it.  I like Holland and have read quite a few of her novels, but I don't rank her among my favorite writers either.

As I get older I find myself stumbling over historical fiction, though I continue to enjoy reading it, because I keep wondering Is this part authentic, or did the author invent it?  Here's an example from Wolf Hall, which could be historical but might not be.
There is a young woman walking the roads of the kingdom, saying she is the princess Mary, and that her father has turned her out to beg. She has been seen as far north as York and as far East as Lincoln, and simple people in these shires are lodging and feeding her and giving her money to see her on her way. He has people keeping an eye out for her, but they haven’t caught her yet. He doesn’t know what he would do with her if he did catch her. It is punishment enough, to take on the burden of prophecy, and to be out unprotected on the winter roads. He pictures her, a dun-colored, dwindling figure, tramping away toward the horizon over the muddy fields.
"He" who has people watching for the girl is Thomas Cromwell.  The context for the story  is the aftermath of Henry VIII's suspension of his marriage to Katherine, the mother of his daughter Mary (later "Bloody" Mary I), and the difficulty of deciding what to do about Mary.  At this point in the novel it hasn't even been settled where she'll live, a problem given her potential value as a figurehead for rebellion against Henry.

This anecdote caught my attention because it reminded me of the popular complaint that with the Internet you can't know who's telling the truth.  It would have been far harder in those days, if you met a young woman walking around, claiming to be Princess Mary: no photographs, no TV, no People magazine, let alone Internet.  England was apparently abuzz with the news of Henry's divorce of Katherine and his immediate marriage to Anne Boleyn, but few people can have known what any of them looked like.  Henry had cruelly put his first wife aside, so why wouldn't he have turned out his daughter to beg for charity?  For that matter, Cromwell must rely on rumor: there are stories of this young woman burdened by prophecy, but they might be no more than rumor: she might not even exist, but in his position he must follow up.  Even the persistence of the rumor is a datum, a faultline in the King's base of support, which can't be ignored.  And to all this I add the question of whether this story is Mantel's, or one she found while researching the novel.

If something like this happened today, there'd be cellphone videos on Youtube in no time, and the media would have interviewed the young woman before Cromwell could start doing damage control.  But the real Princess, if this were an impostor, would be interviewed too.  I speculate that the poor people who aided her weren't necessarily convinced she was Mary; they could just as easily have taken pity on a young woman alone on those winter roads, perhaps visibly not playing with a full deck, and helped her anyway, as they might have helped any other destitute person.

The truth is out there, but it's not always or even usually accessible.

[I've fixed a minor factual error.  Thanks to reader JC for the correction.]