onsdag 19 september 2012

The villain as hero

Phew. I've finished Bring Up the Bodies, and I can certainly understand why Hilary Mantel, in the end, decided to break off after the Boleyn affair and save the rest of Cromwell's career for a later novel. You really do need some time to digest his behaviour before you're ready to engage in what happens next to Mantel's hard-hitting protagonist. But at least now we know the excuse he had for (on Henry's orders) sending six people to their death on trumped-up charges.

There isn't any.

It came as quite a shock to me. I was counting on understanding Cromwell's point of view better after reading this book. Instead, the opposite happened. Big baby Henry wants out of his marriage, Cromwell's there to help, and at the same time he wants to get his own back on a couple of courtiers who were mean to the dear departed Wolsey... Is this really it? That's not nearly good enough, and to make things worse, Cromwell allies himself with the Catholic groupings at court to achieve his aims. How clever is that? I can hear the thump of a Master Secretary being dropped by his new mates even now.

What disturbed me even more was my own squeamish reaction to Cromwell's dealings. I found the scenes where he uses mental torture to get a confession out of poor Mark Smeaton deeply unpleasant. Now why? I mean, these scenes are deeply unpleasant even objectively speaking, but I've admired villains who've been up to far worse things than scaring a dandyish lute-player out of his senses. Compared to, say, Scarpia in Tosca, Cromwell's a pussycat. But while I hardly spared a thought for Cavaradossi's cracking ribs on the rack, the stratagem of locking Mark in a room with a "ghost" really gets to me.

I think part of the answer lies in the fact that I've got difficulties with the "villain as hero" wheeze. From the top of my head, I can't think of a single instance where it has actually worked for me. It should be a dream come true, shouldn't it? And it feels desperately shallow only to fancy villains when you're not supposed to, letting your reaction be led by their function in their plot rather than by their wonderfully sinister personality. But somehow, the moment the villain moves to the centre of the plot and the events are filtered entirely through his consciousness, I feel myself backing away. That's why I was never a fan of the Francis Urquhart series, in spite of the late lamented Fouché-lookalike Ian Richardson in the main role. I can't quite explain it - perhaps the lack of a moralising hero or narrator somehow forces the reader, very unwillingly, to do his/her own moralising. You watch the villain behaving very badly indeed without any real sense of compunction, and you wonder: what, am I supposed to cheer? To find it funny? To think "Ha, serves the little squirt right"? But this isn't funny, this is wrong.

It's a sad thing daring to contemplate even for a moment that though villains are often clever, charming, entertaining, uncomfortable-truth-telling, undeniably hard-done by and a myriad of other things they are seldom right. And as long as we don't have full disclosure of their thoughts, we can fondly imagine that they are, somehow, aware of the fact themselves.

This could be the reason why I feel more comfortable with shifty Cromwell in Henry VIII or fanatical monk-bashing Cromwell in The Tudors than with Mantel's somewhat smug Cromwell who's in denial about having done anything villainous whatsoever. Still, he did make sure that Anne's "suitors" got killed cleanly with an axe instead of being hung, drawn and quartered, even commoner Mark, because "when he was under my roof I offered him mercy, and this is all the mercy I can deliver". What a nice man.