The Mirror and the Light
Hilary Mantel has been at it for years now with her Wolf Hall/Thomas Cromwell novels and they are a thing of wonder. The nasty Cromwell – not to be confused with the English Civil War chap who ruled a monarchless Britain with a fist of iron – was the creep we saw persecuting and prosecuting Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. He was also responsible for the execution of the Carthusian monks, which the great Victorian historian of the Puritan revolution S. R. Gardiner said was one of the greatest crimes in British history. Cromwell was the remorseless low-born successor to Wolsey as Henry VIII’s hatchet man, and what a hatchet he wielded: confiscating the monasteries to pay off the aristocracy so they wouldn’t revert to Catholicism, humouring and servicing Henry as he flicked and fretted from wife to wife. Even Holbein makes Thomas Cromwell look like a thug.
For Mantel, though, he is almost the opposite: a seasoned realist, making the best of a bad lot in an axe-sharp impaling atrocity of a world. He is her preferred man for all seasons, though summer scorches and winter freezes the heart. The Mirror and the Light is extraordinary because it provides a spellbinding, almost wholly credible, picture of a coherent, multicoloured world, full of swash and buckle and sheer blood-drenched glamour. Mantel turns this broadly familiar history into a panorama of absolute incertitude and drama, compelling the mind and hitting the heart like the very highest kind of entertainment. She is, as a reanimator of that lost, almost forlorn genre of historical fiction, at least the equal of John le Carré and Robert Harris, trashmeisters who can tell tales so captivatingly that they seem to close the gap between art and trash.
So is the Wolf Hall trilogy one of the great literary achievements of our day? If we take a step back, it’s worth remembering that Mantel – a lapsed Catholic with an abiding hatred of More, the man who wrote Utopia and is honoured as a saint – follows in a grand tradition of the British people’s ability to dramatise their history. Her practice harks back not only to Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons but also those 1960s Tudor series from the BBC – such as Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth R – that came with very literate and historically cultivated scripts. It’s the same moment that produced the superbly articulated history books of Lady Antonia Fraser, who writes a variety of history for which popular is too small a word.
So The Mirror and the Light, like its predecessors, is a sumptuous apparitional nightmare of a book with an all but Tolstoyan range of characters. And at its centre is Cromwell, the bluff, formidable, down-to-earth hero of every exigency, the master of whatever it takes. As an antihero, he is a remarkable figure, intimately known and fascinating through every labyrinth where fate may take him. He will haunt our literature with the unforgettable vibrancy of le Carré’s Smiley or Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.
The action of The Mirror and the Light begins with the aftermath of the executions of Anne Boleyn and the poor fellows forced to confess to having been her lovers, though Cranmer, the archbishop who wrote the Book of Common Prayer, has doubts about it all. Henry – weak autocrat that he is – falls for Jane Seymour, but her demise follows soon after. We see Cromwell in discussion with a hundred vibrant figures: there’s his ultimately treacherous colleague Richard Riche; the proud, haughty Duke of Norfolk, murderous to his back teeth; and the poet Wyatt, whose portrayal is very credibly done, and consonant with the man who wrote “They flee from me that sometime did me seek.” There’s also the sharp-witted Lady Rochford and the Countess of Salisbury, the old grande dame of the Pole family, Henry’s Catholic antagonists.
There’s no denying the brilliance of Mantel’s intimacy with the deep subtle byways of history. She shows how Luther applauded Henry VIII’s break with Rome but upheld the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. How Cromwell was sincere in his Protestantism, how much he was a supporter of the greatest Bible translator, Tyndale; how Reginald Pole, later a cardinal, agonised, crossing out sentences, in his attack on Henry. How Henry himself delighted in defending the faith, though execution was the dreadful upshot to the sport of debate.
Mantel is brilliant at the history within the limits of her sympathies. There are superb dialogues between Cromwell and an old clerical and affable French diplomat. She takes the intricate complexity of actual events – how Cromwell stepped in to make a deal with the agonised and awkward young Mary Tudor, for instance – and generates narrative propulsion from what would be someone else’s dry, neglected footnote.
Does she create characters though? She certainly creates the vivid outlines of figures and her women in particular – for instance Cromwell’s lost daughter or the grand Scots girl, Lady Margaret Douglas, doomed by her love match – have an extra dimension. But in the end, not quite. The vivid figure of Norfolk, say, is just a snarling upper-class mastiff of a man.
But there is Cromwell, and in the last long dazzling section of the book – in which Cromwell confronts his prosecution and eventual execution – The Mirror and the Light has a sustained grandeur, an absolutely convincing portrait of a great man facing his enemies and a lonely man facing his death, which is beyond praise. This is writing that takes away the breath and goes a very long way towards justifying everything that has preceded it. And at the very instant of the execution, it is utterly moving when Cromwell’s fearless young manservant curses Henry Tudor. So, too, with pretty spectacular effect, is Mantel’s imaginative depiction of the experience of death.
So call her a pageant-maker or a panoramist of the high barbaric moment of England’s history if you like, but Hilary Mantel has a palette equal to the picture she creates. And she also has the power and the glory of her own elevated poignancies. Can you ask for more?
Fourth Estate, 912pp, $45
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 14, 2020 as "Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light".
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