Hilary Mantel’s “The Mirror and the Light” – book review

The final installment of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy is a thick volume.

Anne Boleyn’s uncle, Norfolk, struggles to keep his place by Henry VIII’s side. Catholic rebellion is brewing in the North. Meanwhile the king is growing impatient, as the lovely Jane Seymour is still not pregnant. Henry the VIII’s “fixer”, Thomas Cromwell, has to negotiate between some very old enemies and some new power-hungry allies.

The book’s title “The Mirror and the Light” refers to Cromwell’s king – apparently the light of all nations. The extent of Cromwell’s self-deception in the monarch is quite marvelous. How he could still believe that Henry VIII as the king was so much better than all the other monarchs in Europe is completely beyond me. Perhaps Cromwell falls for the charm of the monster who is partially his own creation. 

There is a superbly comic scene in which one of the foreign ambassadors tells the king and his advisor that there is a rumour that Henry VIII kills his wives. Cromwell’s response is almost to challenge the man to a duel. Henry, charmingly suggests he has been “unlucky”.

This review contains spoilers.  Admittedly these are spoilers that a basic knowledge of history would probably give you.

The novel begins with the execution of Anne Boleyn – and it ends with Thomas Cromwell’s execution. Mantel creates convincing female characters who can be pitted fiercely against the men who surround them. Jane Seymour’s ladies and their intrigues and Thomas Cromwell’s efforts to save princess Mary (almost against her own will) make for some thrilling reading. The moment Jane Seymour passes away and Mary gets pushed to the sidelines, I felt the novel flagged considerably. Cromwell becomes slightly unsure of what to do next, and so does his narrator.

Sections of the novel are devoted his to developing fight against the remnants of the Catholic church in England. The dissolution of the monasteries is part of it – but crucially so is the donation of the church’s money to the nobility, administered by the aptly named Richard Riche. Cromwell is well-aware that the aristocrats will think twice about returning to Catholicism if they stand to lose any of their financial gains.

Even Cromwell senses with unease that there is a parallel between Thomas Becket and the recently-executed Thomas More. Cromwell turns into a propagandist, respinning the story of St Thomas Becket as a nasty rebel who deserved what he got. But there are still noble Catholic families left in England… and people would still like to believe that Henry can be persuaded back to the old faith. Thomas Cromwell, as he is about to die, begins talking to the ghosts he can see in the tower. Thomas More is one of those who haunt him.

Cromwell’s personal life does not get much attention in his book.  He reminiscences about the past.  A daughter that he never knew he had appears – and then disappears again. I’m not entirely sure how her presence makes a difference to the novel.

As Anne of Cleves enters the scene, the book picks up the pace again. Cromwell’s arc becomes tragic.

Wolsey, Cromwell’s first patron, was unable to supply Henry with a divorce and therefore expelled from court and possibly poisoned. Mantel strongly implies that Cromwell also falls from favour because he is unwilling to countenance an annulment of Henry’s marriage – this time to Anne of Cleves. But it is also clear that Cromwell simply cannot stop his ambition. Even though Mantel’s Cromwell seems to think that gathering all the different offices in his own hands is an act of self-protection, most on-lookers see him as craving power. As he strives to keep himself safe, he condemns himself. Two months before his execution, he had been named Earl of Essex. His office did not save him.

He was accused of treason. His accusers suggested he was trying to marry princess Mary, the woman whose life he strove to save from her own father. Cromwell’s act of mercy contributes considerably to his downfall.

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