At last! The final novel in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, advisor and “fixer” to Henry VIII, has been published. And it was worth the wait.
“The Mirror and the Light” follows “Wolf Hall” (2009) and “Bring up the Bodies” (2012), both winners of the Man Booker Prize. If the final installment in the fictional series does not win the Booker Prize this year, it will certainly be a mystery. According to the Booker Prize website (Man was dropped from the title last year): “Each year, the prize is awarded to what is, in the opinion of the judges, the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK and Ireland.”
What is often referred to as a “doorstop of a book,” the 757-page novel is a perfect read for the present time. It is also a beautifully designed publication, having a table of contents (a real advantage to an opus this size); a cast of characters (also a great advantage when the cast is so large) which identifies the invented characters as opposed to the historical ones; simplified family trees of the Tudors and their rivals from the House of York (a necessity when reading about British royal history and particularly illustrative of the illegitimate claim to the throne by the Tudors); and an afterward informing the curious reader of the destinies of the surviving characters.
The work’s greatness, however, lies, as it should, in the writing, in all its richness and complexity. It is not giving away any of the plot to anyone familiar with the Tudors to say that the plan of the trilogy was to end the first volume with the execution of Thomas More, the second with the execution of Anne Boleyn, and the third with the execution of Cromwell himself.
“The Mirror and the Light” begins with the onlookers leaving the beheading of Anne Boleyn on Tower Hill. Their next stop is an early lunch. This is stated matter-of-factly, a clue that the novel will not be given to sensationalism, but to mundane, even subtle, horror. This aspect of the book actually gave me a nightmare. Although ghosts appear in the story, they are no spooky cartoons, but emanations of a troubled conscience. The narration is in the third person, but always from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell and it spends much time in his inner thoughts and memories. Nothing is related which happens away from him unless it has been relayed to him through official channels or by his network of spies.
Mantel’s chief concern in writing the book seems to be to humanize the historical person and she succeeds beautifully. Perhaps there are many like myself who have judged his character on the basis of the portrait by that amazingly talented and perceptive artist Hans Holbein (also a character in the novel) and have seen nothing but malevolence in the painting of a beady-eyed, determined-looking courtier on the watch for the main chance. There was obviously more to the real man and the author demonstrates Cromwell’s care for his family, his loyalty to his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, and his struggles to keep promises he has made to others, in particular to the late Queen Katherine of Aragon and to Thomas Wyatt’s father. Mantel also shows his devotion to the Protestant cause. Dwelling within his consciousness, she is also able to draw on Thomas’s memories, particularly those of his abusive father who set him on the path of criminality.
The fact remains that Lord Cromwell was in fact a villain and zealously followed a vicious path of aiding and abetting his king in whatever unprincipled, self-serving aim Henry wanted accomplished. No action was too morally corrupt or even criminal for Thomas Cromwell to carry out in service to an egomaniacal monarch in pursuit of continuing his dynasty’s contested hold on power, including lies, slander, and murder.
The story and its terrible lessons echo down through the centuries to the present day. All three volumes of the trilogy, as well as Derek Wilson’s study “In the Lion’s Court: Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII,” (941.052 WI) are available at the Knox County Public Library.