Revising (and Reviving) History through Fiction

Photo by Flickr user History Books

Photo by Flickr user History Books

 

“History takes a long time for us to reach.”

That rather obvious statement was made by a former president of the United States, George W. Bush, when reflecting upon his legacy. While some sneered that his B.A. in history from Yale University meant little, this was not the only time that Bush proved he had learned a little something about the topic. He told Brian Williams in 2006, “There’s no such thing as short-term history, as far as I’m concerned.” He also famously said, “History. We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.” (In Plan of Attack, by Bob Woodward)

While it is possible to view these quotes as simple explanations of a basic fact of human existence – time adds upon time adds upon time – or as an attempt to avoid responsibility, Bush was actually getting at something profoundly true. While we may view history as that most unchanging of all things, forever frozen in place, experience suggests otherwise.

Journalism is often considered the first draft of history. It takes a bit longer for books to be rushed onto shelves and loaded onto e-readers. Textbooks lag even further behind, though thanks to the drive to release a new edition for each crop of students, it may only take a year for recent events to make the cut. All of this is still initial impressions.

Things don’t get really fun until a few years or even a few decades later, when long-term consequences can be evaluated. When President Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor, Richard Nixon, the outcry was immense. Yet, in the commentary surrounding Ford’s funeral, nearly every commentator, including many who had opposed the decision at the time, praised what is now generally felt to be a difficult but necessary decision.

It is that kind of 180° turn in public and scholarly opinion that George W. Bush was hoping for in his final term in office. His decision to invade Iraq and all that followed had sunk his popularity and earned him criticism from nearly every quarter. Undoubtedly, he hoped that the long-term consequences of his decision would vindicate him in the eyes of many.

Unfortunately for Bush, the rise of ISIS occurred largely as a result of the political vacuum created by the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s admittedly horrific regime; thus, the current political climate is unlikely to engender a major rethink of his decision to invade. However, history does take a long time, and it’s hard to say where things will stand in another decade. History may ultimately fault President Obama as much or more for the rise of ISIS, and not without reason.

What I am getting at here is not really history but historiography: “the narrative presentation of history based on a critical examination, evaluation, and selection of material from primary and secondary sources and subject to scholarly criteria”. Simply put, historiography is the way we think about history and the lessons we choose to draw from it.

One step further down the line, we come to historical revisionism. There is a much more negative connotation that comes with that term – the idea of “messing with” or otherwise twisting history to fit one’s own desires. An extreme example would be the ongoing phenomenon of Holocaust denial. But historical revisionism can be much more innocent and even necessary when it attempts to change incorrect interpretations of the past based on only partial evidence. In such a case, historical revisionism is rather like a guilty verdict being overturned when new details about the crime come to light, proving the innocence of the accused.

Historical revisionism is no longer just for stuffy academics sitting in ivory towers. In two recent cases, it has become a bona fide pop culture phenomenon.

The Ten Dollar Founding Father without a Father

“His enemies destroyed his rep’. America forgot him.”

Thus the cast of the massive hit Hamilton implore the audience in the musical’s opening number, using a rather creative abbreviation to ensure the correct number of syllables. From the beginning, it is obvious that this work of art intends to present a new vision of one of America’s Founding Fathers: one in which he is an orphaned, penniless immigrant who pulled himself to the top through talent and sheer will power, then set about creating a country in which everyone else could do the same through the magic of capitalism.

The musical drives this message home from the very opening words: “How does a bastard son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” The cast is almost entirely non-white. The most notable exception is the role of the villainous King George III of England, who shows up just to whine melodramatically, “Remember we made an arrangement when you went away. Now you’re making me mad. Remember, despite our estrangement, I’m your man.” In one of the musical’s more popular lines, Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette crow, “Immigrants: we get the job done!”

You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone of good musical taste who isn’t impressed by the cleverly crafted lyrics and ear worm-ish tunes. Likewise, the staging, costumes, and overall presentation is impeccable. The only criticism you’re likely to hear – and it’s muted criticism at that – is that Hamilton might be a teensy, weensy bit historically inaccurate.

Prior to my introduction to Hamilton, my impression of the titular character was that he was rather imperialistic, distrusting the common man and favoring an entrenched aristocracy quite similar to that of England. The standard reading of American history has proved more favorable to Alexander Hamilton’s great political enemy, Thomas Jefferson, although Jefferson himself has taken heat in recent decades for his inconsistency regarding slavery. If you watch the excellent HBO miniseries John Adams from a few years back, it will have you believe that Jefferson was often wrongheaded and Hamilton was outright devious, leading the saintly George Washington astray.

"Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda at work. Photo by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

“Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda at work. Photo by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

 

As the son of Puerto Rican immigrants who worked for years to make it in Broadway, it is unsurprising that Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda wished to portray his historical hero as a man much like himself: native of the Caribbean, inclusive in his political views, supporting the ability of the little guy to rise up. The trouble is, Alexander Hamilton was in the Caribbean as the descendant of English colonists, not a native. His difficulties rising up were as much a result of his own abrasive personality and sexual misdeeds as any machinations by Aaron Burr. (Dick Cheney must appreciate Burr, being the only other sitting vice president to shoot a man.)

Some scholars of early American history, while deliriously happy that their discipline is now the hippest thing this side of the Mississippi, have pointed out the discrepancies in Hamilton’s interpretation of events, including smaller issues that I did not mention. This has not hurt the show one iota, as it continues to rake in millions upon millions. High school history teachers use the musical to teach their classes. Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, on which Miranda based the musical, is a bestseller once again after its initial success upon release. President Obama can’t take credit for praise the show enough, and the Treasury Department decided not to replace Hamilton on the $10 bill as previously announced, booting Andrew Jackson off the $20 instead to make way for Harriet Tubman.

All of this ensures that the version of events that will be accepted by most Americans is the one being trumpeted by Hamilton. Almost 200 years after his death, Thomas Jefferson’s cultural stock has dropped, while his rival’s has skyrocketed. None of the facts have changed – just the way that we interpret them. None of the events have changed either – just the version of events that we choose to accept.

“There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait. Just you wait.” So Hamilton says when he first steps on stage in Hamilton, and it turns out that if you wait long enough, your reputation can experience a complete turnaround. Likewise for Aaron Burr, whose greatest song in the musical is titled “Wait for It”. Though the character laments at the end of the show that he will go down in history as a villain, his own reputation can only have improved with all of this publicity.

A Man for this Season

Another historical figure whose reputation has experienced an amazing revival is the chief political adviser to England’s infamous King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell. Prior to this decade, Cromwell was best known in the world of pop culture as the villain in the play A Man for all Seasons, which serves as a kind of hagiography for “St.” Thomas More. Both the play and the movie it inspired portray Cromwell as a hateful, scheming individual who has it in for the hero, Mr. More, to the point of engineering his arrest, trial, and execution.

Beyond the world of the theater, Cromwell’s reputation did not fare much better. He is typically heralded as the architect of the “Dissolution of the Monasteries”, a process in which all the monasteries in England were closed and their property confiscated by the state. This episode in history is usually viewed as a cynical way to enrich the Crown rather than the way it was billed at the time: a necessary step to shut down corrupt institutions that were swindling the common people out of loads of money, while also giving more political control to Rome.

Cromwell received a slightly more positive portrayal in the Showtime series The Tudors, which assumed that he was at least halfway genuine in his Protestant religious ideals. However, it did still stick him with most of the blame for the Pilgrimage of Grace, a rebellion that occurred in northern England largely in response to religious changes imposed by the Crown. It also blamed him for the rather disastrous marriage between King Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, explaining it as yet another move by Cromwell to increase England’s reliance on Protestant allies rather than Catholic ones. Thus, the Cromwell of The Tudors is not a true villain, but not overly likable either.

Then the novelist Hilary Mantel decided to take on Cromwell, and in so doing introduce him to a new generation in a new way. She released two blockbuster novels – Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – that have been translated into a play and then a BBC/PBS miniseries. All of these projects were both financially successful and critically acclaimed. Mantel made history by winning the Man Booker Prize, England’s top annual literary honor, for both the first and second books of a series. A third book dealing with the later portion of Cromwell’s life (in which he – spoiler alert! – loses his head) is forthcoming.

Mary Rylance as Thomas Cromwell during shooting of "Wolf Hall". Flickr photo by Paul Townsend.

Mary Rylance as Thomas Cromwell during shooting of “Wolf Hall”. Flickr photo by Paul Townsend.

 

The Thomas Cromwell of Ms. Mantel’s novels is different than any we have previously seen in pop culture. He is portrayed as the ultimate political strategist, not unlike those that stride the halls of power today. Much like the Hamilton of Hamilton, the Cromwell of Wolf Hall comes from very humble beginnings and has father issues. (Hamilton’s father was completely absent, while Cromwell’s is portrayed as abusive.) He defies social gravity and rises in the ranks by winning the personal trust and admiration of two powerful men: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and King Henry VIII. This also mirrors Hamilton, who moves ahead when he is hired by George Washington.

This Cromwell has England’s and the king’s best interests at heart. If he does ethically questionable things, it is only because he is facing down even seedier characters. He has a loving family that he cares about and is made more endearing by personal tragedy. While Thomas More is arrogant and self-righteous, placing allegiance to a foreign religious figure over his rightful king, Cromwell imagines a better country in which England determines the course of its own destiny. More is brought down largely by his own stubbornness.

As some historians poked holes in Miranda’s portrayal of Alexander Hamilton, so others found reason to doubt Mantel’s Cromwell. How could she forget all those poor monks he screwed over, they ask. How could she make him into such a saint when he was so obviously a sinner?

I will venture another small criticism of Mantel’s Cromwell. Much like Miranda, the author is projecting a bit of herself onto the man. One of the main scholarly debates surrounding Thomas Cromwell is the degree to which his religious beliefs were genuine. If they were, then his treatment of the Church might have been wrongheaded, but it was done with purer motives. If his beliefs were merely an excuse to confiscate property for the crown, then he is a villain. Mantel essentially takes neither position: she portrays him as reform-minded, but not particularly devout. What he does, he does largely for practical purposes. He is the ultimate realist. I am not sure that is an option that the historical Cromwell leaves open to her. Mantel is an atheist, and I cannot help but wonder if this affects the way she views the 16th century, a time that cannot be properly understood apart from religion. She once declared to worldwide headlines that the Catholic church is “not an institution for respectable people”. (I’ll give her a partial pass on that as she was speaking in context about the sexual abuse scandal.)

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1532-34

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1532-34

 

Having said that, the re-examination of Cromwell is long overdue. He cannot possibly be as devilish and lacking in depth as A Man for all Seasons would have us believe. He was a real person with complexities: he had character flaws, but he also had good points. It seems unlikely that the king would implicitly trust someone who was clearly just out for himself.

Mantel’s mission to improve Cromwell’s image has been every bit as successful as what Miranda did with Hamilton. Incidentally, it also did wonders for veteran London theater actor Mark Rylance. In the same year he appeared as Cromwell in Wolf Hall, he won a somewhat surprising Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, beating out competitors from more critically acclaimed films. There can be no doubt that Wolf Hall helped him on that score, making him a sentimental favorite.

So far, we have seen how historical revisionism can essentially amount to historical revivalism: the rescuing of a person’s reputation hundreds of years after the fact. It has been attempted by numerous scholars in non-fiction form, but the past few years have shown how a fictional portrayal that connects with a wide audience can do far more to enhance a historical figure’s reputation.

Of course, for every good example, we have a bad one. The good Tudor revivalism of Hilary Mantel is matched by the rather bad Tudor revivalism of Philippa Gregory. I say it is bad not because I find anything particularly wrong with Ms. Gregory’s writing style, nor am I one to find fault with her enormous commercial success, which I could never match. But novels such as The Other Boleyn Girl – perhaps the biggest hit in Gregory’s literary canon, having been made into a film starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson – have been panned by historians for including too much speculation. Speculation would be the nice way of describing it, while “conspiracy theories” would be the not so nice way.

Leaving aside Gregory’s suggestions that Anne Boleyn actually probably did commit incest with her brother, Elizabeth Woodville really was a witch, and Richard III really did bang his niece, there is good that can be done for history through fiction. The question is, just how historical does historical fiction need to be? When it comes to renewing a person’s reputation, I would say the answer is “very historical”.

On that note, let’s meet one more historical figure…

Before Clinton, before Merkel, before Thatcher

Coin bearing the image of Empress Mathilda.

Coin bearing the image of Empress Mathilda.

 

How does the eight year old daughter

Of a domineering father

And a Scotswoman, but one far from common

Born of privilege, without privilege

Cause she’s female, that’s what she is

Without honor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

 

The teenage founding mother who lost her mother

Got a lot farther cause she got pushed lots harder

She had to reach higher

Crush all her desires

Because at twelve, they put her in charge of a freaking empire!

 

And every day while those she loved were still far

Away across the waves, she struggled to keep her hopes up

A world full of liars – not much to admire

And her husband and the Church were headed for a breakup

 

Then the shipwreck came, and devastation reigned

Poor England saw its future drip, dripping down the drain

Then the sister had a scheme, yes the sister had a dream

She said to them, “Yo, England, I can be your queen!”

 

Well, the nobles, they all said, “This girl is insane, man!

Who she think that she is? We can’t be ruled by women!”

She fought for ten long years, and she cried too many tears

But we still don’t know her name. So tell us, what’s your name, girl?

 

Empress Mathilda

My name is Empress Mathilda

And there’s just one thing that I couldn’t do

But just you wait, just you wait…

 

There you have it: an introduction to the life of Empress Mathilda of England, told in true Hamilton form. I first came across her story when I was attending graduate school in London. (That would be the time when I also, in true Hamilton form, got “a scholarship to King’s College”.) I did things rather backwards: I first found out that I was descended from her, then I figured out who she was.

And my, oh my – who she was! The epitaph carved on her tombstone reads, “Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring.” Great by birth because her father was the king of England and her grandfather was William the Conqueror. Great by marriage because she was wed at just twelve to the Holy Roman Emperor, one of the most powerful men in the world. Greatest in her offspring because beginning with her son King Henry II, every sovereign of England has been descended from her.

Therefore, the epitaph is true but lacking, for it ignores the fact that Mathilda was, as I like to put it, “greatest in herself”. It focuses merely on her connections with powerful men rather than anything she personally accomplished (short of giving birth, which was admittedly a bigger undertaking in medieval times). Mathilda is actually most interesting as a historical figure due to the ways in which she seemed to violate the conventions of the time.

Scene from the "Gospel of Henry the Lion" depicting Mathilda at the time of her second (ill-fated) wedding.

Scene from the “Gospels of Henry the Lion” depicting Mathilda at the time of her second (ill-fated) wedding.

 

First, she strongly objected when her father wanted to marry her off a second time to a French teenager who was most likely a cad. She only agreed to the marriage under tremendous pressure and then left her husband after about a year. Her father, the English king, called all the secular nobles and men of the Church together to convince her to return to her husband. What they said in order to make that happen, one can only imagine.

Even more interestingly, Mathilda was the only surviving legitimate child of her father when he passed away in 1135, reportedly from eating a bad dish of lampreys. Mathilda had been somewhat estranged from her father at the time of his death, but he had nevertheless had all the important men in the kingdom swear on two different occasions that they would make her queen when he died. When the death actually occurred, Mathilda was stuck with her husband in modern day France and pregnant with her third son. Her enterprising cousin, Stephen, knew that possession was nine tenths of the law, and he quickly secured the support of the London business community (already powerful then) and the Church. He was crowned king, and there was not much Mathilda could do about it…yet.

Mathilda and her husband immediately worked to secure the English-controlled lands in Normandy, but as nearly all of the nobles supported Stephen, there was no hope of gaining control of England itself. Things got a lot easier when Stephen turned out to be a terrible ruler, alienating pretty much everyone and unable to put down rebellions. Within a few years, Mathilda was able to travel to England and mount a civil war that lasted for about a decade. In so doing, she was the first woman to lay claim to the throne of England in her own right, and the last to do so for centuries.

What I have told you so far paints a rather positive portrait of Mathilda for our modern day world, when female empowerment is all the rage. However, Mathilda’s bold choices made her plenty of enemies. When her side was able to capture King Stephen and Mathilda traveled to London for her coronation, she angered the business community by suggesting a new tax. (Now, I know that in today’s America, tax hikes are the ultimate political no-no, but consider that at the time the government was basically broke, there was no annual taxation system akin to what we have today, and a large percentage of the country was pretty much starving to death due to the war.) The Londoners subsequently chased her away, and from that point on she never regained control.

For many years, historians both medieval and contemporary chalked this up to Mathilda’s lack of political acumen and her exceptional arrogance. One Nicholas of St. Jacques famously said she was “of the stock of tyrants”. Many of the chroniclers of the day who supported King Stephen described her very negatively in their accounts. “Not like a woman should be,” seemed to be the general consensus. It’s hard not to see this as a case of, “How dare a woman tell us men what to do?”

However, even less sexist historians in our present time have concluded that Mathilda was just a bad politician who didn’t realize that she needed to keep taxes low. Perhaps her biggest fan was the late Professor Marjorie Chibnall of Cambridge University, who in a more flattering biography nevertheless questions some of Mathilda’s decision making, though the problem in her eyes seems to be that Mathilda put herself too much at the mercy of untrustworthy characters or listened to the wrong advice on a few occasions.

I have seen a couple of historical documentaries where they had an actress portraying Mathilda. In both cases, the woman looked a bit older than Mathilda actually was during the civil war, and she was very stern and haughty. One of them pretty much had a death stare the whole time. A recent book that is more complimentary to Mathilda, by Helen Castor, is still titled She-Wolves. One of the documentaries I saw was called Killer Queens. In the recent Starz miniseries Pillars of the Earth, based on the book by Ken Follett, Mathilda is equally nasty, if more in the right than Stephen. In one scene, she warns, “Any hint of treachery on your part, and I’ll have your balls on a platter.” (See the selection of clips from that series above.) Basically, this all makes Mathilda seem like a bit of a…well, let’s just say it rhymes with witch.

I felt that there had to be more to Mathilda’s story, so I conducted extensive research into her life and times. I became frustrated that in both the contemporary chronicles and the modern depictions, her true voice seemed to be missing. Unlike some other historical figures, we don’t have hundreds of her letters left over to analyze. We have a lot of legal documents, but that’s not the kind of personal writing that gives you true insight into someone’s thinking.

More to the point, the vast majority of Mathilda’s life remains relatively unexplored. The only part that has received significant focus is the civil war she fought with her cousin Stephen. Long before that, she was sent to live in a foreign country at the age of eight. Don’t worry though – they waited until she was twelve before they married her to a man easily old enough to be her father. Mathilda’s actual father had about two dozen illegitimate children: imagine what that must have done to the family dynamic!

Her mother died when she was a teenager, a decade after the last time they saw each other. Her brother, the crown prince, was killed in a shipwreck along with much of the young English nobility. It was one of the greatest political tragedies in British history, and it left Mathilda as the heir. Her first husband fought with multiple popes, taking one prisoner to get his way. He was excommunicated until finally reaching an agreement that was very important in German history.

I have already mentioned the difficult start of her second marriage. Her first pregnancy went off without a hitch, but the second one almost killed her. They were making plans for her burial before she finally recovered. The third pregnancy was likely part of the reason that she did not make haste to claim the throne when her father died. (Some suggest this is a sign of her indecision or ignorance of political realities, but I think not.)

Matilda_jidnrichInem

The only surviving drawing of Mathilda made during her lifetime is this anonymous work that depicts her first marriage feast with Emperor Henry V of Germany. Judging by the size of the servants, it wasn’t aiming for accuracy.

 

This was the more complex version of Mathilda’s story that I wanted people to hear. In staking a claim to the throne, she helped pave the way for every woman who has subsequently tried to get involved in politics. In a year when we will have the first woman nominated for president by one of America’s two largest political parties, it seems appropriate to reflect back on what Mathilda achieved. Thus, I have been attempting my own form of historical revivalism, writing a series of novels about Mathilda’s life that tell the story from her perspective, thus allowing her individual voice to finally see the light of day.

Even so, this is not meant to be some of self-serving promotional piece. Mathilda definitely made mistakes, and she probably was rather arrogant and elitist. Even royals in the present day tend to be that way, as well as most non-royals with political power. She was a product of the time in which she lived, but she also stood up to some of the forces of that time, specifically all those who believed a woman could not rule. I am doing everything in my power to ensure the historical accuracy of the books that I write. While some things had to be added to the historical record to make it a workable piece of fiction, such as the creation of minor characters, there shouldn’t be anything that contradicts what we know for a fact, nor is there any wild speculation or sensationalism. Like any author, I allow a bit of myself to seep into my main character, but I sincerely hope that my own bias has not betrayed my material.

I have no expectation of achieving the kind of success enjoyed by Wolf Hall or Hamilton. In fact, I have no expectation of one tenth of that success. However, if this project serves to increase knowledge about Empress Mathilda and help correct the often mistaken impressions about her, then I will deem it an immense success. It may have taken 900 years, but I want to see her story told the right way.

You can read more about this book series at www.chronicleofmaud.com. (Maud was the other name by which she was known.)