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A Textbook Example of Repositioning?


The best characters, like all great brands, live in the minds (and hearts) of the audience. In modern marketing theory, the process by which products, people and services gain a piece of this mental real estate is called ‘positioning’[i].

Positioning recognizes that, in a complicated and busy world where there is so much choice, there is a continuous battle for the audience’s attention and only a disciplined and focused approach to creating meaning is likely to succeed and cut through the clutter. In fiction, perhaps a similar approach is also needed. As G.K. Chesterton said, ‘a good novel tells us the truth about its hero, but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.’ [ii]

But there is one challenge greater than the projection of a character into the audience’s head, and that is the challenge of modifying a strong character’s reputation once it has been successfully created. This is what brand-smiths call ‘repositioning’, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall provides an excellent example of it.

Wolf Hall has won many literary awards but its most significant triumph has been the way in which it has succeeded in creating and popularising a ‘new model’ Thomas Cromwell. The conventional and popular view, derived from both academic history[iii] and contemporary fiction[iv], is of Cromwell as an unscrupulous Machiavellian thug who smashed and grabbed his way through monastic wealth and chopped off the heads of anyone who got in the way of the King’s business. Simon Schama’s colourful description of Cromwell’s plot against Anne Boleyn was written in 2000 and is not untypical:

‘What he [Cromwell] cooked up was thing of pure devilry; a finely measured brew, one part pornography, one part paranoia.’[v]

Drawing upon recent academic research that suggests that another interpretation is possible[vi], Mantel sets about reappraising him. Her new ‘framing’[vii] of Cromwell is of an altogether more sympathetic character: a man of his time, doing the best for his king, country, family and personal beliefs. This is a man who weeps, prays and loves.

The restaging is handled skilfully over 650 pages. Mantel takes few shortcuts. To enable the reader to see a different Thomas Cromwell she concentrates on his interactions with a small circle of key characters. Thomas, like Hamlet, is on stage throughout the book and in these encounters, described by the author from the point of view of an analyst deep within in his brain, we get to understand intimately what Cromwell thinks, believes and feels. Generally this works very well, but it is true that sometimes Mantel’s use of the pronoun ‘he’ in her narrative style confuses and slows down the story.

Thomas Wolsey is the first of Mantel’s instruments of repositioning.  Wolsey is Cromwell’s mentor and father figure who has an excellent grasp of people and values Cromwell’s talents as a fixer and negotiator who can bring a muscular rhetoric (or aCromwellian stare, the equivalent of a kick’) to the task of persuading courtiers to do what Wolsey wants. Wolf Hall is, on one level, the story of Wolsey’s fall, and how Cromwell manages to survive without compromising his sense of loyalty to his mentor. The courtier coalition set against Wolsey allows Mantel to show Thomas Cromwell as a loyal and pugnacious servant who refuses to desert his master even at the end, by which time his own life was in danger. The strategic significance of the Wolsey–Cromwell relationship is further demonstrated in the sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies[viii], which is the story of how Thomas avenges his mentor by destroying the whole faction which had worked to bring Wolsey down.

Thomas More is the other principal character that Mantel deploys to bring about her re-evaluation of Cromwell. Acting as a yin to Cromwell’s yang, Sir Thomas More is Cromwell’s complete intellectual, political and religious complement.  In a series of highly charged set pieces, Mantel uses More to put the conventional case against Cromwell. According to More, Cromwell is the Italian/Machiavellian, the heretic/atheist, and the unscrupulous/unprincipled creature of state. In defence of her protagonist, Mantel firstly asks the reader to re-evaluate the character of the prosecutor, Thomas More. In her telling of the story, More is no saintly liberal but an elitist bigot with a merciless intolerance for religious debate and a dark suit of cruelty. He is also shown to have a very bizarre set of family relationships. Then, in a series of debates between the two, she shows Cromwell arguing to maintain good order in the realm by the avoidance of war and all forms of religious extremism. In her portrayal, Mantel is drawing upon an important contemporary concept coined during religious wars in France: the idea of the politique[ix]. A politique was someone who put peace and balance in the commonwealth above religious faction. Mantel’s Cromwell is much more of a pragmatic politique than either a scheming Machiavellian or a religious fundamentalist.

Famous for creating encyclopaedic fact-bases for her books, whether lists of who-was-where-when, or what were hot contemporary fashions in food, dress and sex, Mantel uses an armoury of historical fact to build the case for Cromwell. After the book’s climax — the death of More — while Cromwell and Rafe are sharing a brief moment of decompression and discussing the detailed calendar of the next royal itinerary, Cromwell once again shows his humanity:

‘I seem to have four, five days in hand. Ah well. Who says I never get a holiday?’

Without any visible compromise to history, Mantel has been able to paint a compelling emotional narrative over an incontrovertible factual framework and chronology, with Cromwell at the centre. A similar sentiment was expressed by Sarah Dunant in her 2013 lecture:

‘Why should you make it up when history gives it to you?’[x]

In another Brookes lecture, Rebecca Abrams[xi] talked of the ‘Tudor history feeding frenzy’ and the current popularity of Tudor fiction. So, how does Mantel compare with other writers? CJ Sansom is one of the most well-respected writers to use the period. He writes well-crafted, carefully researched stories that mix historical fiction with crime. Sansom’s Cromwell[xii] plays more to the conventional stereotype and we see him blackmailing Sansom’s hero, the hunchback lawyer Shardlake, into undertaking various investigations. The setting is clearly Reformation London, and the time is 1529. In contrast, however, Mantel speaks to us as if it were London 2009 as well. There is a timeless quality to the writing and the book is rich in Cromwell quips, comments and one-liners that are absolutely true to the time but just as relevant today. Here is Wolsey speaking like an irritated CEO to a senior member of his board:

‘Thomas, what can I give you to persuade you never to mention this to me again? Find a way, just do it.’

Cromwell is Wolsey’s ‘man of business’, and speaks with a corporate lawyer’s voice. Here Cromwell is advising Wolsey on how to persuade Boleyn to allow his second daughter to follow the first into becoming a royal mistress:

‘Boleyn is not rich,’ he says. ‘I’d get him in. Cost it out for him. The credit side. The debit side.’

Thomas’ speeches are especially important at key moments of crisis in the narrative, such as the series of Cromwell/More confrontations, in which Cromwell desperately tries to get More to toe the party line. As these interactions reach their deadly denouement, Mantel swaps the Inns of Court banter of the early exchanges for longer, more oratorical and passionate speeches, where every debating trick is played. As Audley, the Lord Chancellor, says at the end of one attempt, ‘we won’t do better than that.’ And they didn’t. To the end, Mantel’s More remains superior, controlled and unassailable, and we sense that this is both a cause of genuine regret for Cromwell and his biggest failure.

In this exhaustive exercise in reappraisal, Mantel has one more repositioning trick to play: Cromwell tells Rafe to make sure that More’s daughter gets her father’s head from the London Bridge spike. This small act of kindness provides an illuminating contrast of the family values of these two Tudor giants and a final step in Mantel’s case history in repositioning.


Bolt, Robert (1960) A Man For All Seasons

Burroway, Janet (2003) Imaginative Writing. Longman

Professor Mark Horowitz, review of The many faces of Thomas Cromwell, (review no. 1168) URL: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1168; Date accessed: 14 March, 2013

Hutchinson, Robert (2007) The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister. Phoenix

Knecht, RJ (1996) The French Wars of Religion 1559-1598. Longman

Lukeham, Noah (2010) The First Five Pages Oxford

Mantel, Hilary (2009) Wolf Hall. Fourth Estate

Mantel, Hilary (2012) Bring up the Bodies. Fourth Estate

May, Stephen (2010) Get Started in Creative Writing. Teach Yourself

Pinker, Steven (2007) The Stuff of Thought. Penguin

Ries, A and Trout, J (2001) Positioning. McGraw-Hill

Ridley, Jasper (1982) Statesman and Saint. Viking

Sansom, CJ  (2003) Dissolution. Viking

Schama, Simon (2000) A History Of Britain. BBC

Scholfield, John (2008) The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant. History Press

Thorpe, Adam (1992) Ulverton. Secker and Warburg

[i] Ries, A. and Trout, J. (2001), Positioning. McGraw-Hill

[ii] Chesterton, G.K., Heretics quoted in May, Stephen (2010) Get Started in Creative Writing. Teach Yourself

[iii] Hutchinson, Robert (2007) The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister. Phoenix

[iv] Bolt, Robert (1960) A Man For All Seasons is a typical example

[v] Schama, Simon (2000) A History of Britain. BBC

[vi] Scholfield, John (2008) The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most

Faithful Servant. History Press

[vii] Pinker, Steven (2007) The Stuff of Thought. Penguin, page 243

[viii] Mantel, Hilary (2012) Bring up the Bodies. Fourth Estate

[ix] For a definition, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politique   and  Knecht,  RJ (1996) The French Wars of Religion 1559-1598. Longman

[x] Dunant, Sarah, Oxford Brookes guest lecture 2013. The author’s own notes.

[xi] Abrams, Rebecca, Oxford Brookes guest lecture 2012. The author’s own notes.

[xii] Sansom, CJ (2003) Dissolution. Viking