The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Recently I listened to an interview by Kim Hill with Hilary Mantel where Mantel suggested to readers of The Mirror and the Light that the defined parts of the novel, one to six, could be read almost as separate novels. This, for me, was excellent advice. This novel is not in any way a narrative to be rushed but to be slowly absorbed.
The Mirror and the Light is the long awaited final to Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, following Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. While the first two novels deal with Cromwell’s rise from humble origins to becoming King Henry’s chief minister, this traces his downfall. The novel begins with Anne Boleyn’s beheading. The language is matter- of -fact, yet compelling. ‘The Queen’s Head is severed’, in the next sentence, Cromwell is reminded by a pang of hunger that it is time for a second breakfast. The following passages, though, introduce the reader to a Cromwell rather different to the decisive Cromwell of the previous books. He turns back and in so doing so, he considers the previous scene. He recalls Anne’s courage and dignity-‘few women are so resolute at the last, and not many men’ -and the devotion of her women attendants who ‘will not let any man touch her; palms out, they force back those who try to help them’. The images are vivid; the blood, the severed head, the small body, the attendants sliding in the gore. Further on, Cromwell feels disgust at Suffolk’s disrespect for the queen he himself ruined.
This first chapter sets the tone for this third novel. Cromwell has rid Henry of Ann so that he is free to marry Jane Seymour. Cromwell has achieved what he ruthlessly set out to do, yet he cannot help but recognise Anne’s nobility as she faced death. He abhors Suffolk’s behaviour but, at the same time, he does not consciously acknowledge his own role in her death. It is as if he is somehow unaware- an observer rather than a participant. This failure to consider his own role expands further to his relationship with Henry. While, in accordance with Henry’s wishes, he has removed Ann, he has also created a situation where Henry has been made a cuckold; Cromwell, through his claims of Anne’s adultery with a number of men, has cast aspersions on Henry’s own manhood. This thinking, pausing, considering, yet not quite making connections, is an integral part of this third novel where Cromwell is less perceptive in his decisions and more prone, certainly, to hubris. He allows himself to criticise Henry. He takes less heed of warnings which are certainly there.
He also allows himself to pity and provide care for Henry’s first daughter, Lady Mary, which causes speculation and distrust. Almost the reader thinks, he becomes, from his supremely powerful position, less aware of the need to watch, perhaps appease but definitely silence his enemies. When Queen Jane dies, the replacement he finds, Anne of Cleaves, proves disastrous. Henry, who has become increasingly volatile and bloodthirsty, is furious. The slights and mistakes of the past seethe into blistering rage.
An aspect of this novel that I particularly admire-apart from the wonderful prose, the insight, the sheer breadth of vision- is the perceptiveness with which Mantel approaches her subject. Cromwell is as unknowable and as complex as any other unknowable human. We see his cleverness, his wit, his ambition, his ruthlessness, even his loneliness but we are never entirely sure of him. On one hand he is scathing about Henry, on the other he expresses his devout duty to his king. Does he truly believe in Anne’s adultery or is he simply ridding himself and the king of a woman who is both dangerous and no longer viable? Does he believe, truly, in the new religion which Henry has adopted or is it another means of power for Cromwell-and a source of wealth? I found myself quite breathless towards the end. I knew what was coming but I didn’t want to let go of this powerful and enigmatic character. This is a wonderfully rich and powerful novel to be read slowly and, as Mantel suggests, book by book.
Reviewer: Paddy Richardson
Fourth Estate, Harper Collins.