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Review: The Mirror & the Light, by Hilary Mantel
Holt, 2020. 754 pp. $30

Following Anne Boleyn’s beheading in May 1536, chief advisor Thomas Cromwell’s star has never shone brighter in his royal master’s eyes. But Henry VIII, as Cromwell knows better than anyone, is nothing if not changeable, usually for the wrong reasons and in disastrous ways. Not that His Majesty lacks intelligence, learning, or shrewdness. Rather, his childish temper and make-the-earth-stand-still behavior when he expresses a desire threaten to undo good governance or prevent it altogether. So though the king has just gotten rid of an unwanted wife and married Jane Seymour, who promises to be more pliable than her predecessor, if not more fertile, other troubles emerge immediately.

Financial and religious grievances spark a popular rebellion in the northern shires. France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Emperor trade phrases of amity; even a temporary truce among these rivals could leave one or more free to invade England. Henry’s daughter Mary, fiercely loyal to her late Spanish mother, is a rallying point for foreign and domestic enemies seeking to destroy Henry’s recently instituted control over the English church and return primacy to Rome. And though the king is happy with his new bride, she has always been sickly.

But The Mirror & the Light, the third, triumphant volume in the Cromwell trilogy, involves far more than a throne in peril. The history, politics, and backstabbing would provide a feast for any historical novelist, and indeed, many have written about these events. Mantel’s sense of which details matter or her gift for dramatic portrayal set her apart, but there’s more. Cromwell is what a later generation would have called a master psychologist and deep thinker who understands how to protect Henry from himself, and so the councillor’s maneuverings make a fascinating, tension-filled narrative. Cromwell institutes reforms, keeps the king from imploding, and protects the royal reputation at home and abroad, all while convincing Henry that His Majesty has done everything himself.

Cromwell’s singular success derives partly from a concept extraordinary for the time: Offer a rival a reward to do what you want, and you need not hit him or her over the head to show who’s in charge. Fancy that. Cromwell also has a far-sighted vision in which a wise, forbearing monarch, aided by experts chosen for their ability rather than lineage, will govern the nation without having to depend on an uneasy coalition of noblemen who itch to occupy the throne. You can see why the king’s councillor collects enemies.

You can also see how Mantel has thought deeply about power, its use and abuse, and cast the king-councillor relationship as a matter of preserving England. As my favorite novel-writing guru likes to say, your protagonist must have private stakes at risk (what happens to him or her) and, even more importantly, public stakes affecting the world at large (which is why we care). Here, Henry’s and Cromwell’s lives and interests are the private stakes, whereas the public stakes involve a philosophy of life and government essential to the modern age—and, if you will, progress from medieval mayhem.

You can hardly get more compelling than that. Yet Mantel doesn’t play favorites or grant Cromwell the earnestness that mars so many novels about progressive figures. He remains a man of his time, perfectly willing to deploy the executioner’s ax or the power to seize assets, and if he can’t influence Henry’s more odious whims, he bows to expediency and fulfills them to the letter.

Further, this erstwhile blacksmith’s son from Putney lives up to his age (or any other) by allowing ever-increasing power to seduce him, much as he tries to keep himself in check. In a brilliant stroke, Mantel shows how helpless Cromwell felt as a boy, abused by his violent father, learning early to live by his wits. Now, the higher he rises, the more he thinks and speaks about his origins. In a sense, he’s still that struggling, mistrustful, hard-edged boy.

Then, of course, there’s the justifiably famous Mantel prose, which creates authority, mood, and feeling as well as descriptive beauty, as in this passage about Cromwell’s late wife’s possessions:

Her jet rosary beads are curled inside her old velvet purse. There is a cushion cover on which she was working a design, a deer running through foliage. Whether death interrupted her or just dislike of the work, she had left her needle in the cloth.… He has had the small Flanders chest moved in here from next door, and her furred russet gown is laid up in spices, along with her sleeves, her gold coif, her kirtles and bonnets, her amethyst ring, and a ring set with a diamond rose. She could stroll in and get dressed. But you cannot make a wife out of bonnets and sleeves; hold all her rings together, and you are not holding her hand.

When a servant, observing him at this moment, asks whether he’s sad, Cromwell replies—typically—that he can’t be. He’s not allowed; he’s too busy.

Readers of the previous two volumes may be pleased to hear that the author has taken greater care to identify the ubiquitous he that refers throughout to her protagonist. Occasionally, you hit bumps, most notably when Cromwell reminisces to himself, but you can’t stay lost for long. If you count pages, The Mirror & the Light is a long book, but the only trouble I had was making it last. This is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work for Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in shorter, different form.