The Mirror & The Light book review: Hilary Mantel’s epic finale “lives up to the hype”

Tracy Borman salutes the conclusion to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & The Light – "a masterpiece" that immerses readers in the dangerous world of Henry VIII’s court...

A portrait of Thomas Cromwell

Ever since the publication of the second book in the Wolf Hall trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, in 2012, speculation has been rife as to when the final instalment would appear. Then in May last year, a huge billboard went up in London’s Leicester Square. Alongside the unmistakable Tudor rose design were the words, “So now get up”, recognisable to Wolf Hall aficionados the world over as the first line of the trilogy. Not long afterwards, Mantel’s publishers, Fourth Estate, confirmed March 2020 as the publication date. Diehard fans had an agonising 10 more months to wait, but at least the end was in sight at last.

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Can any book live up to such hype? In the case of The Mirror & the Light, the answer is an emphatic yes. The third book in the trilogy covers the last four years of Thomas Cromwell’s life, from 1536–40. It begins exactly where the second volume left off: with Anne Boleyn’s bloodied remains on the scaffold at the Tower of London. Within the first few paragraphs, the eight years of waiting for this book to appear fade away and the reader is immediately transported back into the world of Henry VIII’s right-hand man.

Can any book live up to such hype? In the case of The Mirror & the Light, the answer is an emphatic yes...

The same immediacy – and intimacy – of Mantel’s extraordinary writing style is apparent from the start, helping us to set aside our knowledge of the horrors to come and live each day, each hour, with Cromwell as if we too have no idea what lies ahead. Only the occasional fleeting reference to a character or event that will have profound consequences for him later in the narrative leaves us with what Cromwell himself describes as “a chilly trickle of dismay, like water creeping into a cellar”.

We first encounter the protagonist in his 50th year. He has “the same small quick eyes, the same thickset imperturbable body; the same schedules”. But if his appearance has changed little, his responsibilities have grown immeasurably since he freed his royal master from his troublesome, son-less second wife. As well as being principal secretary, chancellor of the exchequer, privy councillor, master of the rolls and master of the jewel house, he soon inherits the title of lord privy seal from Anne Boleyn’s disgraced father. He is the ‘second man in England’ after the king.

Mantel paints a vivid picture of the burdens, as well as the power, that come with such a staggering portfolio of duties. He rises at five each morning and is still working long after dark. Often, he sleeps in a chamber near his royal master so that he can be woken if his presence or advice are required during the night. It would be an exhausting schedule for one of much younger years, and the toll it takes on Cromwell can increasingly be seen as the narrative progresses. But so can the glittering prizes that it brings – and those that remain just beyond his grasp, urging him on to greater efforts. Danger is always present, though. The book’s title is a reference to the fragility of life in the king’s service. “If Henry is the mirror, he is the pale actor who sheds no lustre of his own, but spins in a reflected light. If the light moves he is gone.”

At a mammoth 912 pages, this is the weightiest book of the trilogy by far. Just occasionally, the narrative seems in danger of becoming too meandering – when, for example, we follow the protagonist’s apparently idle musings and fantasies. But then, in reading them, one can easily believe that every thought that passes through Cromwell’s mind – invades his dreams, even – may be to a purpose.

Hilary Mantel paints a vivid picture of the burdens, as well as the power, that come with Thomas Cromwell’s staggering portfolio of duties

The length of the book is justified by the number of events that it covers. The four years leading up to Cromwell’s demise made up one of the most turbulent periods in English history. Barely had Anne Boleyn been laid to rest than Henry had married wife number three, Jane Seymour. A year after the wedding, she gave him the son he so desperately craved (the future Edward VI) but died a few days later. The hunt was soon on for her replacement, and Cromwell was quickest off the mark. But while he had found the perfect diplomatic match in Anne of Cleves, he had disastrously misjudged the monarch’s willingness to set love aside in the interests of politics. This was not the end for Cromwell, but it did expose his vulnerability – and gave the Howards a chance to push forward a candidate of their own.

While Henry’s marital shenanigans were playing out, his kingdom was riven by dissent and rebellion, sparked by his sweeping religious changes – the dissolution of the monasteries in particular. Of acute concern to Cromwell was that it was his head for which the rebels were calling. But the greatest danger lay closer to home, in the myriad relationships with his fellow courtiers.

As the narrative progresses, the distinction between allies and adversaries becomes increasingly blurred. Cromwell’s protégé Wriothesley (nicknamed ‘Call-Me’) is typical of the rapacious, self-serving politician whose loyalty was as flexible as his conscience. Cromwell’s ambiguous relationship with Princess Mary is particularly well drawn, starkly illustrating how easily trifling, innocent gestures could be twisted into treason.

Mantel gives new life to the well-rehearsed stories, but it is in shining a light on the minutiae of daily life in Henry’s court that she is at her most masterful. The research that underpins this novel is truly impressive. No detail is overlooked: from the names of individual servants and officials, to the weaving in of quotes from ambassadorial reports, trial papers, account books and other contemporary sources. Looking through the extensive cast of characters, only a handful are purely fictional, and all are impeccably researched.

As well as vividly evoking Thomas Cromwell and his world, this focus on the day-to-day business of serving the king helps to obscure what most readers will know is the inevitable conclusion. Realising from the outset that the protagonist will die would doom most books to failure. But Mantel’s achievement is to make us see everything as Cromwell would have seen it, to live each hour as he would have done – sometimes fearing, but never knowing for certain what was to come.

Tracy Borman on how Wolf Hall won a global readership

Before 2009, if you mentioned the name ‘Cromwell’, most people would have assumed you meant Oliver, the Civil War leader. His earlier namesake, Thomas, was far less well known. Those who had heard of him tended to view him as a villain: a grasping, cynical politician who destroyed the monasteries to line his own pockets and ruthlessly dispatched anyone who stood in his path.

All of that changed with the publication of Wolf Hall, the first book in a trilogy about Henry VIII’s right-hand man by Hilary Mantel. Thomas Cromwell was one of the most unlikely protagonists imaginable, yet Mantel transformed him into a hero of our time: loyal, wise, humorous and even a bit sexy – a self-confessed ruffian made good through sheer ability and hard work. Her portrayal was so compelling, her research so painstaking, that it transformed even professional historians’ opinion of Thomas Cromwell – myself included.

Popular though historical fiction is – the Tudor period in particular – nobody could have predicted the global phenomenon that the book and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, would become. Both won the Man Booker Prize and sold millions of copies worldwide. It was not long before they were optioned by the BBC and turned into a lavish drama starring Mark Rylance. Mantel’s Cromwell also transferred to the stage with Ben Miles as the lead, and played to sold-out audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

Aside from crafting three of the most exquisite works of literary fiction, Mantel’s achievement has been in making Thomas Cromwell a household name. When Danny Dyer took part in the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, the fact that he was a direct descendant of Cromwell caused as much of a flutter as his royal connections. With the release of the final instalment of the trilogy, there is sure to be a new wave of Cromwell-mania and his popularity shows no sign of abating. To paraphrase a line in Wolf Hall, now that he is made, he cannot be unmade

Tracy Borman is the author of Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014)

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This review is from the April 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine – on sale 19 March 2020