Masterful tombstone for a tudor bruiser
Hannah Betts reviews The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel
Behold: a nation of uncertain political fortune, wilfully isolated from the rest of Europe. It is led by a capricious, egotistical maniac with a penchant for making his way through women, spawning bastards in his wake. He, in turn, is governed by an establishment out- sider, a manipulative master strategist with a thuggish bent, while disease rages all about. All hail, a story from another age.
If Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale sequel was the great middle-class love-in of 2019, then Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall wrap-up, The Mirror & the Light, is the still more thrilling cultural event of 2020. I say “more thrilling” not because Mantel is the better writer — no one holds a candle to Atwood in full flight. It is merely that, where Atwood’s follow-up was an antic caper next to her original, so Mantel’s finale is an epic humdinger that finishes off her Renaissance man with the fanfare he deserves.
Doubting Thomases who imagined the venture might fail without the galvanising force of Anne Boleyn — head already severed in its opening clause — haven’t reckoned with how practised Mantel has become at this stuff, or the cracking cast of characters that is hers to deploy. I give you the bastards, the beauties, the wits, the wives! Damn it, she even succeeds in making Jane Seymour fascinating.
Besides, ghosts are ever-present: Anne, her brother, Wolsey, Walter Cromwell, the benighted eel boy, and entire War of the Roses battle fields. “ e dead are more faithful than the living”; the living dead men (and women) walking, our hero not least.
This third instalment is Mantel’s best yet, making the previous two novels feel like a rehearsal. Not that one won’t re-read them and find them dazzling. Only that there was an ungainliness, an olde worlde awkwardness that left some readers stranded. Any such obfuscation is gone, in its place a knife-to-the-gut precision. And, if one has somehow failed to read the last two, no matter: The Mirror & the Light stands alone; albeit I defy anyone to resist looking backwards. It will be ridiculous for Mantel to bag another Booker, but bag it she must.
This is not to say that the thing couldn’t have done with an edit, and someone should have had the balls to say so. Wolf Hall hit the shelves in 2009, Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. It has famously taken Mantel two years longer than planned to conclude her tale, reluctant to part with her Tudor bruiser. The Mirror & the Light is a hulking 900-page tome, such that — were one to drop it on one’s face come bedtime — one would look as if one had done time in the Tower.
Technically, its narrative spans only four years, meaning one’s labours can feel greater than our Herculean hero’s running England single-handed. Mantel justifies this via Thomas Boleyn shaking a choppy finger and noting: “We have seen events crowded into a week, that in ordinary times would have sustained the chroniclers for a decade.” However, her obsession with diplomatic minutiae can feel too much like showing her workings, while there are middle passages that read like lyrical procrastination.
Still, readers will indulge her because we don’t want old Crumb to get the chop either. If redressing the Boltian “More — good, Cromwell — evil” ethos from A Man for All Seasons ever felt radical, those days are long gone.
Putney’s nest is not only decent, but hot. By book three, everyone wants to do him: not just Mary Boleyn, but her dead sister, his future daughter-in- law, Mary Tudor, Mantel, the reader . . .
Somehow, The Mirror & the Light is not just a love letter, but a whodunnit — and a whatdoneit to boot. It is testament to Mantel’s oddball genius that she manages to take the only bit of history any Brit knows and make of it a thriller. Cromwell and his new dynasty of “mushroom men” take on England’s ancient families in a tournament to the death.
The river that seeped through his childhood has become a wash of blood and ink threatening to submerge all, as factions compete to write and rewrite England’s future.
It is a narrative bejewelled by metafictions: masques, paintings, verses, insignia, chronicles, conduct books, transcripts, show trials, new Bibles, devious political embroidery, Cromwell’s Book Called Henry, and the book of Cromwell’s life, rewritten by his accusers. At their centre sits a marriage: not Henry’s with one of his many wives, but that between prince and politician. “Who is Cromwell?” we are asked on practically every page, “What is Hen- ry?” almost as often.
Mantel takes the phrase “He, Cromwell” — the concession she was forced into when readers became confused over her use of the plain pronoun — and transforms it into a game in which her hero’s name is constantly morphing from “Jolly Tom of Putney” via his shortlived stint as Earl of Essex, taking in every variant in between. rough- out, Henry must believe he is the mirror and the light of other kings, until the ageing monarch sees himself through his new bride’s eyes and the fantasy cannot hold. Then Cromwell is an Icarus who must fall.
Cromwell is accused of attempting to usurp Henry, as Henry has been accused of attempting to usurp God. In fact, the heretic here is Mantel, so awesomely omniscient an author that she boasts the power to raise the dead, à la her trilogy’s open-ing words: “So now get up.” And what a splendid heresy this is. Cromwell’s final hours are a masterpiece within a masterpiece, the reader a mess of snot and sobs.
In her afterword, we’re told that Henry lives another seven years without Cromwell, “ill, disabled and dangerous”. We hear the fates of Bluebeard’s remaining wives, and the ancient families Cromwell sought to stamp out. Tucked away is a coda to this tale of prince and politician. Richard Cromwell “survived his uncle’s disgrace . . . His great-grandson, Oliver Cromwell, was Lord Protector of the first English republic.” Blood and ink flood on, but that is another story.
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