The Reading Room
VRG Extras: Wolf Hall and Hume
Brother men, you who live after us, Do not harden your hearts against us. -François Villon
This epigraph is from Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the third and final book in her series on the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell in early 16th century England. But it also could apply to the first two books in the series and a Virtual Reading Group (VRG) hosted in the fall of 2022 at the Online Library of Liberty.
Dr. Shannon Chamberlain recently led a VRG on Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (the first book in the trilogy) and related writing by David Hume. It was called “The Messiness of Progress: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and David Hume’s Essays and Histories.” You can find the reading list here. Here’s the description of the group:
Hilary Mantel’s modern masterpiece Wolf Hall tells the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s notorious minister and fixer. Usually cast as the villain in Tudor historical fiction, Cromwell instead emerges from Mantel’s account as a deeply sympathetic striver. We meet him first as a desperately poor and abused child, and follow his journey as a banker, a lawyer, the most useful and beloved servant of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and, finally, as the man who will arrange England’s break from Rome, battling the hatred and scorn of Henry’s noble and conservative courtiers. Mantel’s Cromwell is a financial, religious, and intellectual visionary in the great Whig history tradition—which will make it especially fruitful to read Mantel’s novel alongside Hume’s essays on history and the rise of the modern liberal state. We will read for similarities and dissonances in Hume’s and Mantel’s accounts of the Tudor period, and with a view towards seeing the messiness, non-linearity, and occasional tragedies of progress.
After the virtual reading groups, Chamberlain agreed to a series of VRG video “Extras” to go into greater depth on some of the questions discussed in the group and a few that the group didn’t get to. Chamberlain is a tutor at St. John's College in Santa Fe, NM and she’s speaking with AdamSmithWorks assistant editor Christy Lynn Horpedahl.
What makes a specific moment historically interesting?
How is modern virtue different from "ancient" virtue?
Why should you (or anyone!) read historical fiction?
How much can one man from Putney matter in the directions of history?
Differences between history, philosophy, stories, and poetry.
How "knowing" the end is different from experiencing without the benefits of knowledge.
The arbitrariness of stories and history.
How the language for talking about institutions and institutional change throughout time is imperfect and might make history harder to understand. The danger of unchecked power.
The women of Wolf Hall (especially Jane Seymore).
How Mantel and Hume compliment and challenge each other.
How Thomas Cromwell is like Michael Corleone in The Godfather.
Here are links to the readings from Hume at the Online Library of Liberty:
David Hume, The History of England, Vol. III, Chapter XXIX
David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, Essay VIDavid Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, Essay III
David Hume, The History of England, Vol. III, Chapter XXX
If you’d like to purchase Mantel’s Wolf Hall, buying with this link will benefit Liberty Fund.
Sarah Skwire on a first edition of David Hume's History of England from Liberty Fund's Rare Book Room.
Sarah Skwire on Cromwell and the Chiseling of the Court at AdamSmithWorks.
Christy Lynn on reading Hume's history for the first time and how Mantel’s Cromwell is an example of Smith’s poor man's son (Be forewarned, Chamberlain disagrees).
Garth Bond in the Online Library of Liberty’s Reading Room, "Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty and the Question of Historical Fiction" (which briefly mentions Wolf Hall).
Christopher Hitchens' Atlantic article on Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, "The Men Who Made England" (recommended by Chamberlain).