When is a book not a book? Or, the mystery of the pirate paperback…


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I was in one of the second hand bookshops on Mill Road this afternoon, the blue-painted one for the animal charity. Cats or dogs – I forget which. In the shop, I found a paperback copy of Robert Harris’s new novel Conclave. I was pleased, as I had wanted to read it but had been waiting for the paperback to be released in May 2017. Without giving it too much thought, I assumed that this book was a proof version or review copy (a common find in Cambridge charity shops) and bought it straight away.

Walking around for the rest of the afternoon, trying to get my baby to sleep in his pram, my thoughts kept returning to the book in my bag. It was not labelled as a proof copy. They are usually labelled. And if it was a review copy, would it not have been in hardback? Was it a pirate copy? A fake? What if it wasn’t the book I thought it was at all – had I inadvertently picked up something else? Stopping in a cafe for a hot chocolate, I got the book out to have a look. No marks, no signs, no clues as to its origins. It was large, for a paperback, larger than they usually are. The text was larger too, with wide margins. It didn’t look, or feel, like a ‘normal’ book.

I felt paranoid. How could I know that the text inside the book was Robert Harris’s text? What if it was something else? What if there were sentences, or paragraphs, or whole chapters missing? How could I find out whether this book matched the ‘real’ version on sale in Waterstones? Did I know anyone who had the hardback version, so we could compare? Could I look up the ISBN and identify it?

I found all of this thought-provoking enough to want to write about it (the first time this has happened since I went on maternity leave four months ago). First, I was interested because – as an early modern historian – this made me realise how people might have thought about books 500 years ago. Perhaps it was always a risk, buying a book; perhaps you were never quite sure what you were getting. How did you know that the words on the pages were written by the author whose name appeared on the title page? How did you know that some of the pages were not missing? Especially if the pages were bought unbound, or from a seller you didn’t know. Or if the cover looked a bit dodgy. How could you verify your copy?

But I also found that this linked in to conversations that we are having at the moment about the problem of fake news. Websites such as Facebook are being criticised for presenting ‘news’ stories from various unreliable sources, without making clear where they come from, or indicating which are credible and which are not. People are being exposed to misinformation. Internet readers are becoming trapped in echo chambers, only reading things they are already inclined to agree with. In a way, this seems obvious. We always tell our students not to rely on web sources: we urge them to use the library, to consult books and printed newspapers, and peer-reviewed journals. These texts are stable, they are reliable, they can be cited and checked and verified. Books are for real: the news you find on social media is untrustworthy, even dangerous.

But of course this problem is not new, and of course books are not stable. Books can be counterfeited. We know this, but it is not something that we need to confront very often. My own discovery of a strange book has sent me on a journey that I found enjoyable and inspiring. I’m not saying my copy of Conclave is a great mystery – it’s surely a review copy. No big deal.* But it prompted me to question, to reflect, to ponder the nature of texts both now and in the past. It made me feel like a historian again, and not just a mum.

I bloody love books.

*just found out from @onslies about airport books. It’s an airport book. Ignore all of the above.


Thomas Cornwall: a dramatisation too far?


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The BBC’s much-publicised sequel to Wolf Hall is already causing a lot of controversy. The latest series, known simply as “Poldark”, shows the lead character Thomas Cromwell grappling with economic, political, and social problems in Cornwall, where he has inherited his father’s old copper mine. The programme’s representation of historical events and figures has prompted many academics to come down from their ivory towers and express their concern on social media. Central to the debate is the portrayal of the lead character, who has dark hair, eyes, and rides a horse. “It’s a complete distortion of the truth”, said David Snarkey, adding that the series was “probably written by a woman”. Critics have pointed out that we don’t know how tall Cromwell was, and have argued that he would not have spent so much time gazing out to sea.  

But by far the bigger issue is the character of Thomas More who, it has been noted, has been conspicuously absent from Poldark so far. “This is a severe oversight”, said one historian. “Thomas More was a renowned and celebrated humanist. He was a saint and probably even a feminist. He wrote so many books, and really it is shocking that none of these have yet featured in Poldark.” Similar concerns were raised over the European version of Wolf Hall, “The Musketeers”, which was strongly criticised for its failure to include Thomas More, and its unorthodox depiction of Henry VIII as a French king. “The BBC’s approach to history is really quite cavalier”, opined several people. “The public is being terribly misinformed”.

The glorification of Thomas C at the expense of Thomas M has never been so pronounced, leading some commentators to suggest that we may have reached peak Tudor. In the run up to the election, it is absolutely imperative that we decide one way or the other. “We need to set the historical record straight”, said Michel Gobe, “to prevent people from playing around and fictionalising things and having far too much fun. Cromwell needs to put his shirt back on, and I really think Ms Mantel has a lot to answer for in that regard.” @JenniferJBishop

Which Thomas is which?


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I recently watched Waldemar Januszczak’s BBC documentary about Hans Holbein the younger. There is a point, about half way through the show, where Januszczak positions himself in front of two famous portraits in New York’s Frick Collection. One portrait shows Thomas Cromwell. The other, on the opposite side of a fireplace, is of Thomas More. Januszczak asks: who was the real “bad guy”, Cromwell or More? His answer is fairly simple. More’s portrait possesses a certain gravitas; even the stubble on his chin is refined. Holbein’s skill reflects More’s genius. Cromwell’s portrait, by contrast, is surely the “least attractive” of all Holbein’s Tudor paintings. He has small, “piggy eyes” and fat, grasping hands – just look at how he crushes that document in his clenched fist! Where More is depicted as the quintessential renaissance man, Cromwell looks like he’s about to hit someone. Where More exudes a quiet wisdom, Cromwell thrums with a threatening, brute energy.

I’m not here to take issue with Januszczak’s conclusions, or even to question his methods of reaching them. What concerned me most about this was the way that it plays into a popular tendency to place More and Cromwell on completely opposing teams, with one of them “good”, and the other of them “bad”, and not much middle ground between them. Our job is to pick one Thomas and stick with him – whose side of the fireplace are you on?

This all stems, of course, from the recent TV dramatization of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and the proliferation of documentaries, blog posts, articles, and opinion pieces about its protagonists. Fans of More have been incensed by any sympathetic treatment of Cromwell, and vice versa. Passionate arguments have been made on both sides. In all of this, however, what seems to have been largely ignored is the possibility that there was no one “good guy” and one “bad guy”. When I was reading Mantel’s novels, what I found most enjoyable about her portrayal of the relationship between More and Cromwell was the close interplay between the two men. If they do not act together, they at least act in juxtaposition. Their movements are influenced by the same factors, and they are in constant dialogue. In Mantel’s books, even after More’s death Cromwell continues to have conversations with him in his head. Yes, these exchanges are often antagonistic. But they are vital. You can hang the two men on opposite sides of a fireplace all you like, but they were not as separate, as different, as we sometimes assume.

The tension between the two characters stems just as much from their similarities as from their differences. Both were influential, powerful, and important historical figures. Both were patrons, advisors, and politicians; both were fathers and household heads. Both could be hard, stubborn, and brutal, and both were responsible for the deaths of others. Tudor politics was complex, messy, and grim. Its protagonists were complex, messy, and often grim. They were human – and it is the strength of Mantel’s work that she recovers some of their moral ambiguity.

And this is where the problem lies. With Cromwell, this novelistic treatment is largely a positive thing. It is interesting to see a historical figure treated in a new way – we find Mantel’s portrait fascinating. It makes us think. It allows us a new perspective. We are happy to debate its pros and cons. With More, on the other hand, his humanisation is loaded. If you believe him to be a saint, any suggestion that he was less than saintly is not fascinating – it is provoking, even disturbing. Maybe this is the reason why the debate has become so polarised. But it helps to remember that this was not a zero sum game – a sympathetic portrayal of one man does not necessarily entail a criticism of the other. If we admire one, we do not need to abhor the other. A fight between a “good guy” and a “bad guy” might make for a decent story – but a fight between two wolves, both gnarly members of the same pack, is more complex, more troubling, and ultimately more rewarding.