Author: Hilary Mantel
Title: The Mirror & the Light
Series: Thomas Cromwell #3
“We have all read the sermons. We could write them ourselves. But we are vain and ambitious all the same, and we never do live quiet, because we rise in the morning and we feel the blood coursing in our veins and we think, by the Holy Trinity, whose head can I stamp on today? What worlds are at hand, for me to conquer?”
The Mirror & the Light, the grand finale of Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, is, like the two previous books, a precious and unique tour de force. I say this without hesitation: to me, this trilogy constitutes the best of what Western literature of the last several decades has to offer. It’s a true modern classic; a required reading that I cannot recommend highly enough. I have read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies before this blog was even an idea, so I haven’t written reviews for them and I doubt I will anytime soon – definitely not before a reread, and these are books that require a lot of effort and attention to be fully appreciated 😉; what I can say here is that all three deserve the highest praise as rare masterpieces.
That said, The Mirror & the Light is not a perfect book; I will write more about that later. I believe it is slightly less powerful, less predatory, more sated and nostalgic, and thus, in effect, less awe-inspiringly raw and furious than Bring Up the Bodies, and yet it delivers on all its promises and the promises of its predecessors, and more. Most importantly, it achieves the goal of its brazen, reckless, insanely staggering and yet somehow inevitable ambition: it rewrites and reevaluates the history of Henry VIII while recreating the true history (inasmuch as any history can be true) of Thomas Cromwell, showing them both as living, breathing men. Mantel’s judgment on them both is rooted firmly in thoroughly researched historical evidence; but the pleasure with which she destroys the myths of the enlightened king and the villainous servant is all her own – and the readers’. There’s even more than that: Mantel brings this long-gone past back to light so that we could see ourselves in its unforgiving, ruthlessly honest mirror. It’s not about crass one-to-one comparisons of plague and covid-19, of religious persecutions or even the complex push-and-pull of the Britain’s relationship with continental Europe. What Mantel shows us, compassionately, expertly, are raw emotions, fervent beliefs, various psychological mechanisms, and the grinding inevitability of outcomes in the fight between an individual and the system.
The Mirror & the Light shows Cromwell at the peak of his power; though it is a lie. I should rather say that it shows Cromwell and everyone around him believing he’s at the peak of his power; what we really see, however, is that this peak already contains the inescapability of the subsequent fall. It’s a cliff’s edge, and there’s no other way than down for those who had been so elevated. For we all know how this story ends – and Mantel paints richly the canvas of the late years of Cromwell with the unsettling dark hues of foreboding. The Mirror & the Light is the most introspective of the three novels; filled with memories and reminiscence, showing the slow inexorable fall from grace in a series of elusive, impressionistic scenes between Henry and Cromwell, Cromwell and Chapuys, Holbein, various British aristocrats, priests, spies, ambassadors and even an imagined daughter, it puts Thomas Cromwell at the heart of all: his worldview, his beliefs, his plans and his continuous, stubborn striving. His delusions, too, and his foibles – after all, he is human, as human as they come. Mantel doesn’t try to gild him, or geld him, for that matter: Cromwell at any point of his life, from the humble, cruel beginnings till the tragic, cruel end, remains an incredibly intelligent, knowledgeable, dangerous, power-hungry, and ruthless man.
“She sees the king’s councillor: a genial man, comfortable in his skin. She doesn’t see the other man, whom he keeps short-chained to the wall: the man for whom the work of forgetting is strenuous, who dreams of dungeons, cavities and oubliettes. Such men are subject to uprushes of fear which wake them in the night; when they are frightened, they laugh.”
Mantel’s Cromwell is a paradox, an enigma made relatable and comprehensible to us by the miracle of empathy. He is a man of our times. He is eminently intellectually curious, self-conscious and full of knowledge about himself and the world that we seem to have gained only in these last centuries; as such, he might be a construct, built upon the foundations of the scant original sources comprehended through an entirely, unavoidably modern lens. And yet, he is also patently a child of his own times: an avid reader of both the Bible and Machiavelli’s The Prince, self-assured and brash and grasping, always hungry for more, always mindful of the price and the value of power; in short, he is a child of the Reformation, the fated consequence of Renaissance’s turn toward the Man. But within that all, at his core, he remains a mystery: as much to himself as to us. He remains forever “He, Cromwell,” not “I, Cromwell;” he can only be perceived through the lens of someone else’s vision, a masterful composite of the complex, ambiguous past and our very present longings and dreams, fears and furies. And that, I’d argue, is the strength and the allure of his person: we can see ourselves in him, or, at very least, we can comprehend him as a fellow human being. Where he differs from us is his knowledge of Henry and the court; he knows the name and the rules of the game intimately; he knows the stakes.
“He thinks, that was Anne Boleyn’s mistake. She took Henry for a man like other men. Instead of what he is, and what all princes are: half god, half beast.”
Some readers expressed their disappointment with the conclusion of this novel; that the true end of Thomas Cromwell is so short compared to the length of the whole; that he seems oblivious to the dangers that seem to crowd him at every turn. I disagree with this opinion; I feel that Mantel showed the paradox of living under an absolute rule with enviable subtlety and precision:
“’I have often pitied you, Cremuel,’ Chapuys says. ‘Henry is a man of great endowments, lacking only consistency, reason and sense.”
By the time Henry turned on him Cromwell was much too entrenched in the courtly life to simply up the stakes and go; thus his meekness at the very end was the inevitable result of his deep, consummate knowledge of the process he himself helped establish. For him, it was not just his life at stake; on the contrary, his life, in the strategic long-term view, was the least important element of the whole puzzle in which the lives of his son and nephew, of his proteges and friends, of the members of his extensive household that he valued so much higher than his own were inextricably entangled with his own behaviour. Were he to assure their survival, he had to forfeit his own life – the beast that was Henry had to be sated.
“He has lived by the laws he has made and must be content to die by them. But the law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future. It seems there is no mercy in this world, but a kind of haphazard justice: men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.”
I missed the bared claws and teeth of Bring Up the Bodies a little; The Mirror & the Light is smooth and soft when compared to the vicious naked survivalist ambition of its predecessor. In The Mirror & the Light Cromwell becomes one of the fat cats he fought against his whole life; in name, and in nature. He becomes less careful – but nobody can be vigilant all the time; he becomes more nostalgic, steeped in memories more than in the present – but he was many years past his prime, having survived his wife and daughters, three queens, countless priests and abbots and saints, aristocrats and ambassadors. So this change in tone is in a way inevitable – it shows the arc of Cromwell’s life, and it is arcs’ essence that they go down once they reached their peak. And yet this tomcat still has his claws; Cromwell’s observations remain sharp and lethal, as always.
“His displeasure! I am sure I have displeased him, he thinks. Look how he steamed and glared, that day I took a holiday. Look how he pawed the ground and rolled his eyes. That is what Henry does. He uses people up. He takes all they give him and more. When he is finished with them he is noisier and fatter and they are husks or corpses.”
The one false note for me in The Mirror & the Light is the presence of the purported Cromwell’s daughter Jenneke, whose character Mantel based on few historical mentions of Cromwell’s possible out-of-wedlock progeny. I don’t feel Jenneke’s short appearance brings anything to the story; on the contrary, it introduces a touch of mushiness that’s out of tune with the rest of the book. Apart from this little criticism, however, I have nothing for The Mirror & the Light but the highest praise.
This review is extremely long already; let me conclude it with a few sentences about Mantel’s complete mastery of writing. Her skill is undeniable; she creates and destroys moods and worlds with single words and sentences, evoking the scenes before our eyes with impeccable detail and nuance. She engenders a wealth of emotions in the reader; there’s a reason it took me so long to finish this novel – I was deeply reluctant to do it. And yet, she as an author remains transparent; hidden behind her characters, subtly making her own presence known through the delicate placement of accents and emphases. She writes about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII and days of the past, and yet at the same time she about us and our modern times. And this timelessness, this universality of what it means to be human, is what makes Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy so powerful, so important, and so everlasting.