Doesn’t time fly when you are enjoying yourself! There have been a number of different responses to lock-down, but this is probably not one of them. However, some people have managed to keep themselves busy, and we are able to produce the fifth edition of our Forum. The first item, a book review, has an overrarching commentary by Roger Mitchell, but includes some very interesting and personal observations from Margaret Wilford.
Alan Potter raises the standard for women in science – and a very good thing too. I am sure we share his commitment to this cause, so well-illustrated in the examples he chooses.
We will make the next edition a poetry one and we really are looking for contributions from members. If there is a poem you would like to share (not too long, please) send it to John Sharp with a paragraph on why you like it and how you respond to it.
By the way, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has an excellent virtual tour. You can look at the pictures you choose, for as long as you like and adjust the focus. It’s a bit tricky finding the right tour and then working out how to operate the navigation, but if you are a fan of the great masters, it is well worth the effort.
C.J. Sansom and Hilary Mantel
With additional material from Margaret Wilford
Margaret Wilford and I have both been reading recently published and best-selling novels set in mid-Tudor England. Both are over 800 pages in length, but, although similar in setting and in length, they are very different kinds of books. I took on the easier challenge – Tombland (2019) by C.J.Sansom.
This is the sixth novel in a series featuring Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer and detective, who manages to solve complex murder mysteries, while surviving in the constantly changing politics of the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI. The central characters are invented but their actions unfold against a carefully researched historical background and real historical figures play a part. In ‘Tombland’, for example, two future Tudor Queens, Mary and Elizabeth, make cameo appearances, while the Norfolk popular leader, Robert Kett, has a more central role. The murders provide a strong narrative drive, while Shardlake and his team are sympathetic characters whose beliefs and attitudes would allow them to slip into the 21st century without too much difficulty. Shardlake is also ahead of his time in that he must be the only Tudor to eat ‘lunch’ on a regular basis! A lot of history goes on in the background. In this case it is the Norfolk Rising of 1549 while in previous books the Pilgrimage of Grace and the sinking of the Mary Rose have been used in this way. Sansom provides an excellent historical essay at the end and this helps to clarify where the documentary evidence ends and the novelist’s imagination begins. The books are a good read, entertaining as well as informative. I find them overlong and to my mind the first book in the series, Dissolution (400 pages) remains the best because the murder mystery is always centre stage.
Margaret’s challenge was much harder.
‘The Mirror and the Light’ (2020) completes Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. The two previous volumes, ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ both won the Booker Prize. They were challenging as well as rewarding, and this final and long-awaited volume is longer and even more complex.
Margaret and I have discussed it in letters and telephone calls and here are some of her reflections.
‘I am three quarters of the way through and still not happy with it. It is just too much – much too much, but I think it may be getting just a little less trying.’
‘I enjoyed the last bit (about two hundred and odd pages!)’
‘I have finished ‘The Mirror and the Light’! It was heavy going in every sense. I don’t think I liked it – but I may have another go at it when I’ve got over the initial impact. It’s enormous – massive – a prodigious work indeed. So much background detail and reflection – a sort of ‘sideways’ observation and memory. Some of these bits are fascinating. I thought the garden with its many different plum trees, the arrival of the leopard and the material on Westminster Abbey were among the highlights. The book is particularly impressive and enjoyable when it deals with practical matters. Some of the material about food, especially when foreign guests were being entertained in style, should appeal to all gourmets.’
‘I think that Mantel has been successful in explaining the shifting ground and the way that Cromwell recognises that things are changing. He is overconfident and too certain of his own abilities but despite this, he manages to have sympathies in all sorts of unexpected directions. He understands risk and danger but is prepared to stand his ground when he feels that it matters. In so many ways he is both aware and self-aware and yet he is strangely surprised when others fail him and turn against him. He had weathered adversity all his life and he recognises, and perhaps even understands, the concept of the wheel of fortune. But in arranging the marriage to Anne of Cleves, Cromwell completely and fatally underestimated the importance of satisfying Henry’s expectations – Anne did not please and that was that. Cromwell could not put it right and he ploughed on to a final promotion to the Essex Earldom swiftly followed by his downfall.’
‘Do the final four years of Thomas Cromwell’s life really need 875 pages? In ‘The Mirror and the Light’ much of his earlier life is covered through memory and reflection but, even so, this book is not intended to stand alone. It is a third volume of a trilogy and, all told, Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell extends over more than 2,000 pages.’
These comments show that Mantel is much more ambitious than Sansom. She tries to take us into the inner world of a person who really existed and was a central figure in the creation of Tudor England. As former history teachers, we both feel a mixture of respect (perhaps even envy) for her achievement but also a concern that her novels may have changed the way that Thomas Cromwell is viewed. Those who have read her books or seen the adaptations for theatre and television find it very difficult to maintain the traditional view of Cromwell as a grasping politician ruthlessly dispatching anyone in his way. That old-fashioned view does need to be questioned, but there are real dangers here. The quality of Mantel’s writing and the conviction with which an actor as talented as Mark Rylance can create a truly sympathetic character might make us want to believe in ‘a hero of our times’ but this would be an invented Cromwell rather than a documented Cromwell. In a review of the book, the historian Tracy Borman describes a Cromwell ‘who is loyal, wise, humane, even a bit sexy’ but Margaret is far from convinced and the idea that a novel ‘has transformed even professional historians’ opinions’ (Borman) attracts a one word comment – ‘nonsense’ – even though, in a later letter, Margaret wonders if she ‘has gone a little too far.’
Both Margaret and I enjoy reading historical novels and respect the huge amount of research that writers like Mantel and Sansom undertake, but neither of us is willing to give up the right to wield the red pen of the teacher or examiner. Wavy underlining, question marks and comments like ‘What is your source?’ and ‘Are you sure?’ would appear frequently as we ploughed our way through our 800 page epics. We live in an age accustomed to ‘fake news’ but perhaps we also need to beware of a related, but not identical, phenomenon, ‘unverified history’. We may be happy to let Matthew Shardlake occupy an undocumented corner of Tudor history, but Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell, attractive and convincing though he may be, must never be mistaken for the real thing. He is an invented character who may throw some light on his historical counterpart but must not be allowed to provide a source of information about the real Cromwell.
To get as close as possible to that ‘real’ Thomas Cromwell, you will need fact rather than fiction and two excellent biographies, both written within the last ten years, are available.
Tracy Borman’s name has been mentioned already and her biography, ‘Thomas Cromwell – the untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant’ was published in 2014. Her introduction makes reference to the recently published ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’, the first two volumes of the Mantel trilogy and, to some extent, she is providing for Mantel what Sansom provides for himself in the historical essay at the end of his book.
In 2018 Diardaid MacCulloch, one of the most distinguished of Tudor historians, published ‘Thomas Cromwell – A Revolutionary Life’. This has both length (more than 700 pages) and depth. It has been widely praised, not least by Hilary Mantel, who describes it as ‘the biography we have been awaiting for 400 years’.
All told, we are looking at several thousand pages of literature and history but we can both state without hesitation that any time that you spend exploring Thomas Cromwell and his world will be richly rewarded.
Hidden Women in Science
In the 1980s, the Children’s Learning in Science Project (CLIS) researched what children already understood about certain science concepts, such as force or sound or light. As a result, teachers were better able to build on each child’s prior knowledge and tackle any misconceptions before adding new information or ideas. As a starting exercise, the primary school or early secondary school-aged children, were often asked to draw a typical scientist. What was produced was quite revealing; the scientists in the drawings very often wore a while coat, had frizzy hair and glasses and, more strikingly, were almost always male. This was equally true of the drawings produced by girls who made up about half of those taking part.
In some ways this is not surprising as even as recently as 2016, the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) campaign reported that just 21.1% of science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) jobs in the UK were held by women. This is the legacy of women being denied the typical routes to scientific careers over a very long time. Most higher education institutions did not even begin to accept women until the 20th century and Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge waited until 1986 to admit female students. Although women have faced such barriers over very many years, they still contributed to science through making original discoveries, unravelling scientific truths and publishing new and often revolutionary findings. They, and their work, were just ‘hidden’.
Some, such as the French mathematician Sophie Germain in the 18th century, progressed by dressing up as a man and adopting a male nom de plume to get into university and obtain the lecture notes. Further back in time, women had to work alone, often secretly, on scientific pursuits but often very successfully too. For example around 1200 AD, the Babylonian chemist Tapputi-Belatekallim, distilled and extracted chemicals for use in perfumes and unguents while in Greece, Aspasia, in the 4th century AD, pioneered gynaecological and surgical techniques that doctors recognise and follow even today. Some women like Marie Curie, following her work on radiation in the early 20th century, were both noted and rewarded for their work but most have not been recognised and history is packed with very capable women who were forced to accept unpaid jobs as assistants just to get a foot in the door of a laboratory. Sometimes they were asked to step down from even these posts when they became married.
The Harvard Computers
One of the many largely unknown but inspirational stories of pioneering women scientists that stand out is that of the Harvard Computers – a term originally use for people who performed complex mathematical calculations long before it referred to a piece of electronic hardware. At the end of the 18th century Harvard College Observatory astronomers captured images of the night sky by photographing them on to glass plates. Unfortunately there was far too much data for the few people available to manage so the Observatory Director, Edward Pickering, came up with the novel solution of drafting in dozens of women to take on mathematical computing jobs to calculate the exact positions of the stars for the very first time. At this time, the bright and talented women graduating from the newly founded women’s colleges often only had options for work such as teaching or running a household. Although paid less than the men, these new women computers were a mix of both academics and uneducated women, all given a chance to lead the classification of the stars.
So between 1881 and 1919, the Harvard Computers worked in the library next to the observatory measuring the brightness and the positions of the stars with high concentration and painstaking attention to detail. The work was considered boring, which is why this work was given to women in the first place, but it was in fact far from routine. The women had to apply complicated mathematical formulae firstly to distinguish the stars from simple splodges on the dark photographic plates and then to determine the relative brightness of the newly individually identified stars. They were the first scientists to map the night sky in the Northern and Southern hemispheres and one of their number, Annie Cannon, created the Harvard Classification Scheme for stars based on characteristics such as colour and temperature, a system that is still used today. Another, Williamina Fleming, originally the Director’s cleaning woman, went on to catalogue more than 10,000 stars and was the first to spot the Horsehead Nebula some 1,500 miles from earth. Another ‘computer’, Henrietta Leavitt, who like Annie Cannon was profoundly deaf, identified the pulsating nature of stars, which future scientists, including Edwin Hubble, used to prove the universe goes far beyond our own paltry galaxy. All of this work at the cutting edge of astronomical discovery took place in the library, as the women were routinely not allowed to use the mighty Harvard telescope itself next door.
Overall, some 500,000 photographic glass plates were produced and classified and were continued to be used by Harvard right up until the 1990s when digital cameras supplanted the old ways of recording images. Once again, women showed themselves deserving of equal opportunities to be scientists and through the work of the Harvard Computers, the stars and many of the secrets they hold are no longer hidden. By recalling and celebrating the work of those pioneering women scientists in revealing the nature of the heavens, we can ensure they too are recognised and can act as role models for the girls and women of today wishing to become scientists.
Margaret Gregson wrote, ‘to say thanks for organising the SUES Forum. I particularly enjoyed the article on the periodic table as my degree is in chemistry. I also appreciated the reference to Tom Lehrer. I remember having a tape cassette of his songs when I was at university. I now have a CD. It would be good if some clever person could write a Tom Lehrer type song about the current situation – possibly ‘the isolation tango’. Is anyone up for the challenge?
See our archive for previous editions of the SUES Forum!