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Review: Hilary Mantel – The Mirror & the Light

Joseph Geldman reviews the third and final part of Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed epic narrative about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell.

The final novel in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is markedly different to its predecessors. Covering the period 1536 to 1540, it features a Thomas Cromwell who is comfortably settled in his position, no longer involved in the bloody business of ascension. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies displayed the violent, temperamental forces in Henry VIII’s court, where wives and Chancellors could lose their heads on a tyrant’s whim. This court still exists in The Mirror & the Light, but Cromwell is above it. 

Yet here more than ever, Cromwell is haunted by his past. The narrative occasionally tumbles into lengthy passages of exposition: on his father, on “the eel-boy” he killed in a childhood brawl, on the very real phantoms of Anne Boleyn and Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More, reaching up from their graves in the first two books. Mantel’s sentences unfurl luxuriously; her twisty, dream-distorted passages are a joy to read, but at the same time, to revel in them, as Cromwell does, is to be ensnared.

The ghosts are a genius trick in a second way, though. As Cromwell sits comfortably in his Austin Friars house, we are made intensely aware that he is a ghost to us. History has told us exactly how his story will end. This irony is most successful in the novel’s final chapters: Cromwell becomes convinced that he is at the point of his “magnificence”, but it is a 400-year-old spoiler that his downfall is fast approaching. When Cromwell notes that “the king will meet [Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife] at Blackheath, conduct her to Greenwich palace, and marry her by Twelfth Night,” the satisfaction of foreknowledge is immense. And the seeds of his downfall are well-sown: a misplaced word here and there; the slow-growing shadows of the anti-Cromwell conspirators in Stephen Gardiner and the Duke of Norfolk; the sudden, brief appearance of a girl named Katherine Howard, who reminds us that Henry and his projects of marriage will ultimately exceed Cromwell.

At 912 pages, The Mirror & the Light is a huge book. A tighter edit might have culled a few pages here and there, but the richness of the world within justifies its size. To read The Mirror & the Light is not only to read the words of William Tyndale and Machiavelli and Thomas Wyatt, but to live with them. Mantel’s great strength in this trilogy has always been making the obscure web of Tudor poets and intellectuals a little more human. When Cromwell himself starts work on his own Book Called Henry to explain the king’s moods and the principles of good government, we see just how immediately powerful polemic can be as a tool. If Mantel valorises anything in The Mirror & the Light, it is this kind of lively, empirical humanism, set against the skulls and fingerbones of supposed martyrs, and the dry prudence embodied by Thomas More – speaking here, as throughout this trilogy, in “words, words, just words”.

”My past pads after me, paws on the flagstones.”

Thomas cromwell

Words of one particular sort play a significant role here: poetry. Cromwell has close relationships with two poets: Thomas Wyatt, whose life he saves early in the novel and who becomes a sort of protegé; and Thomas Howard, alias Tom Truth. Truth is demonstrably and sometimes hilariously bad as a poet, but as Cromwell notes, “[e]ven the worst poets, from time to time, hit on a felicitous phrasing.” In this case, the “felicitous phrasing” is that “fancy”, like a Siren, can lead a person “from the light”. With Cromwell, this fancy is his desire for competent leadership in England: a competence which can only be achieved by him alone, free of King Henry’s tantrums. This, of course, forms the heart of his treason.

What the poetry in this novel illustrates so well, though, is the importance of individual words. One misstep – such as Cromwell’s ambiguous note that “I am not too old to take my sword in my hand” in the name of the Reformation (leaving it unclear whether he is for or against Henry) can speed a man’s downfall.  The success of Mantel’s writing rests on her appreciation of this fact, and her words are always judiciously picked.

Yet even Hilary Mantel cannot sustain her usual efforts over so many pages. While the prose is consistently astounding – flesh is “honey-combed with light”, pavements are set with “onyx… green serpentine and glass”, dogs are “sad huddles of fur”, there are certain narrative flaws. History rarely has a satisfying narrative, and Mantel sometimes struggles to find one. The invented character of Cromwell’s daughter Jenneke enters the novel for a brief sentimental interlude, but it is never more than that: an interlude. This is characteristic of the middle section of the novel. While the opening and the conclusion are both well-constructed, certain stretches in between prove barren. This is partly due to the absence of strong forces to threaten Cromwell. While his dealings with Princess Mary present a risk in the earlier part, and his downfall looms in the latter, the middle part of The Mirror & the Light lacks a foil as strong as the sharp and volatile Anne Boleyn of Bring Up the Bodies, for example. The question should perhaps be asked of what Mantel actually does for Cromwell in The Mirror & the Light. She’s quite unashamedly in favour of the Reformation, but more for its humanism than its Protestantism. There’s certainly a strong argument that the Wolf Hall trilogy is revisionist history designed to portray Cromwell as a great humanist hero ahead of Thomas More, framed here as intolerant. But we can leave that discussion to the historians.

As a novelist, Mantel succeeds in her principal task: creating a rich, immediate, and utterly absorbing world. For what it’s worth, I still think Bring Up the Bodies is the trilogy’s best instalment. The Mirror & the Light has more to say about Cromwell’s history and legacy, but it suffers a little from its wayward focus. Yet to call it – and the trilogy overall – anything less than epic would be unjust.