The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel [A Review]

The fall of Anne Boleyn could have meant the fall of Thomas Cromwell as well given his role in helping Henry make her his queen. But a man who can navigate the clash of interests in Tudor England and can make Henry’s wishes come true is a rare thing and the King’s trust in Cromwell has never been greater. Not that anyone is safe in Henry VIII’s kingdom and we all know what must come in Mantel’s long awaited conclusion to her Cromwell Trilogy.

Cover Image of The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Though it was a momentous event in the history of England, Thomas Cromwell’s day-to-day life mostly continues as before following the execution of Anne Boleyn. He still works without rest on the affairs of the King and State. If anything, the business of cleaning up things after the Queen’s death has added to his workload. While his aide, Wriothesley, warns that Cromwell’s enemies are as active as ever in plotting his downfall, Cromwell is not overly concerned.

‘People have been talking of the cardinal. They say, look at what Cromwell has wreaked, in two years, on Wolsey’s enemies. Thomas More is dead. Anne the queen is dead. They look at those who slighted him, in his lifetime – Brereton, Norris – though Norris was not the worst…’

[…] He says, ‘If I wanted revenge on Wolsey’s enemies, I would have to strike down half the nation.’

‘I only report what the people are saying.’ […] ‘They ask,’ Wriothesley says, ‘who was the greatest of the cardinal’s enemies? They answer, the king. So, they ask – when chance serves, what revenge will Thomas Cromwell seek on his sovereign, his prince?’

Cromwell still has to manage and navigate the various factions in the Court and Kingdom; those who think Anne’s downfall will mean Princess Mary will be reinstated as heir and a reconciliation with Rome will follow; those who think Cromwell owes them favours for his rise in power and success in the Boleyn matter, and the King’s illegitimate son who thinks he could be put in line to the throne as well. Even more difficult is keeping England, and its small holding on the continent, safe from the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor. No less tricky is managing the King himself, whose temper, reasonableness and predictability, like his physical self, has never been more volatile.

Cromwell has built security, wealth and power despite his humble origins through the exercise of his various strengths. Among them are understanding people and their motives, drawing talented people towards him and his diligence in never making an error in word or deed that could be used against him. But even he could not predict the trouble brewing in the north of England. A popular rebellion, the Pilgrimage of Grace, the most threatening of Henry’s reign, has risen with Cromwell and his policies as their main target. Cromwell will have to use all of his skills and count on his few allies to keep him safe.

‘They know you need them. You cannot stand alone. Because if the new marriage does not last, what have you? You have Henry’s favour. But if he withdraws it? You know the cardinal’s fate. All his dignities as churchman could not save him. If he had not died on the road to London, Henry would have struck off his head, cardinal’s hat and all. And you have no one to protect you. You have certain friends no doubt. The Seymours are grateful to you. The councillor Fitzwilliam has been a go-between, helping rid of the concubine. But you have no affinity of your own, no great family at your back. For when all is said, you are a blacksmith’s son. Your whole life depends on the next beat of Henry’s heart, and your future on his smile or frown.’

The Mirror and the Light is the third and final book of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Series. Its style has much in common with the earlier two novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. For example, the best parts of the novel, for me, were the scenes between Cromwell and other key figures – sometimes friendly, sometimes antagonistic, always interesting and enjoyable to read. I said in my review of Wolf Hall that it is not surprising to me that the novels have been adapted for the stage since they follow a structure around these loaded, dialogue-heavy scenes.

That being said, some aspects which changed from the first novel to the second continue to evolve in the third. So, this structure, which seemed so confined in the first novel, is much more fluid by the third. Cromwell’s entourage is well-established by now; their conversations move swiftly from topic to topic with everyone participating. It was much more interesting to follow and seemed more realistic to read. With no Anne Boleyn or Catherine of Aragon, and Princess Mary now somewhat submissive, the novel needed a woman who can tango with Cromwell and Lady Rochford, who had her moments in the earlier novels too, nicely filled the gap.

The nostalgia, which became noticeable in Bring Up the Bodies, is also more pronounced in The Mirror and the Light. Cromwell dwells heavily on the ghosts of his past, especially the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey. Given what we know must occur in this novel, it is an almost-anticipated method for setting the tone and mood of this finale.

In the previous books I noticed moments where Mantel seemed to stretch a little to make Cromwell seem decent and reasonable and his main adversaries prejudiced and vicious in their animosity. That continues in The Mirror and the Light as well. Here, Mantel also seems to want us the see Cromwell as misunderstood, his intentions misconstrued.

I also said of the previous two novels that Mantel avoids the standard methods of giving the reader a feel for the period that you might be accustomed to or come to expect from historical fiction. Mantel’s methods are more subtle, of a different type and, given the novels’ focus on plot and characterisation, less relevant as well. They are there if you pay close enough attention to look for them. It’s in the description of how things change in the build up to Christmas, Cromwell’s memories of Antwerp, a recollection of cleaning up after a butchering or watching a play of Robin Hood and dwelling on thoughts about outlaws.

I am glad I waited until I could read the three novels together. Not just because you would lose continuity if you tried reading each when first published after gaps of some years and would have to reread them anyway. But because there is a certain seamlessness to the series. While, in my reviews I have commented on how the three books differ in style and structure, on how they have evolved from one to the other, they still remain a very close trilogy. Themes which come into play half way through Wolf Hall continue into the first half of Bring Up the Bodies and themes which emerge half way through Bring Up the Bodies continue into The Mirror and the Light. The trilogy is therefore closer to being one novel separated into three parts, like The Lord of the Rings, than some other novel series where there are gaps between the novels or where the author finished one novel without any thought of a sequel or where each novel has a distinct enclosed story.

Overall, I am sorry to say that I was disappointed by the Cromwell Trilogy. Perhaps my expectations were high as a fan of books that are at least nominated for the Booker Prize and these were thrice nominated and twice won. I waited a long time to read them together. I filled the wait by preparing myself with the history books of Alison Weir and Diarmaid MacCulloch. There is plenty there for readers to interpret as relevant for our times, even a commentary on them – managing a temperamental autocrat, economic and cultural nationalism, political survivalism in illiberal times. But the Cromwell novels are long books and as much as I enjoyed those great scenes with Cromwell in meetings with Henry, Catherine, Anne, Thomas More, Imperial Ambassador Chapuys and others; the rest of the books were a lot to get through and did not engage or entertain me enough.

It almost was though. In both Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light, some of those key scenes were so well done and enjoyable they almost made me reconsider my feelings for the entire books. The publication of The Mirror and the Light was delayed. Some question whether Mantel was having difficulty writing the end of her championed protagonist. I doubt that was the case. Especially since the ending of The Mirror and the Light was done so well, I could finish the series feeling somewhat satisfied, almost enough to reconsider my feelings of the whole.

You can find my reviews of the other novels in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy here.

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