Off with his head: Review of Hilary Mantel’s ‘The Mirror and the Light’

Mantel’s third in the Cromwell series is expectedly full of Tudor style hurly-burly. But once that’s over, the narrative sags and you start counting the pages to the end

May 09, 2020 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Back in time: A scene from the ‘Wolf Hall’ mini series featuring Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell.

Back in time: A scene from the ‘Wolf Hall’ mini series featuring Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell.

It is the job of a writer of historical fiction to put the reader in ‘the moment’, even if the moment is 500 years ago. So says Hilary Mantel, who does exactly that in The Mirror and the Light , the third in the series after Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, both of which won the Man Booker (2009 and 2012). I lapped up those two books . Who wouldn’t? Henry VIII keeps giving and Mantel is an extraordinary storyteller.

It is rare enough finding a book you can’t put down, and then to find a sequel that you can’t keep away from is extraordinary. So when the big fat copy of the third in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light (882 pages), turned up for review, it seemed like the perfect lockdown read. The delicious anticipation heightened with its opening lines: “Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner...” The ‘he’ is Thomas Cromwell, the protagonist, who has just successfully overseen the beheading of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Sense of dread

History may not love Cromwell, but Mantel does — enough to write three books about him. The Mirror and the Light follows the last four years of his life. Everyone knows the story won’t end well for Cromwell, but that doesn’t stop one from rooting for him, willing him somehow to win the day, like he has so many times before. But, as the story progresses, the reader is all too aware of his vulnerability.

The book plunges one straight into the bloody gore of spilt guts, burning flesh and festering wounds of Tudor England. Henry VIII still thinks that he is “the mirror and the light” of all other kings and princes in Christendom and it is in Cromwell’s interest

to let him continue thinking that. But Cromwell knows that his position in the Royal Court is tenuous and that he sheds “no lustre of his own, but spins in a reflected light. If the light moves, he is gone.” His many high-born enemies don’t ever forget his lowly origins; he has to constantly watch his back. And so, the uneasy sense of dread never leaves, even when he seems unassailable.

Drama, drama

Not for nothing is this commoner from Putney, son of a blacksmith, the King’s fixer and henchman, a rising star in the royal firmament. Henry only needs to wish, and Cromwell makes it come true. The breaking away from Rome and the Pope, so that Henry can divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn, is masterminded by Cromwell.

When Anne fails to produce a male heir and Henry tires of her, Cromwell arranges for her to be charged with adultery and treason. He spearheads the dissolution of hundreds of monasteries, churches and abbeys, which are dismantled, and their wealth and land taken over by the state. Henry shows his approval by making Cromwell his Viceregent in Spirituals, then the Baron of Wimbledon, and finally the Earl of Essex. But the triumph is short-lived: in a few days Cromwell will fall from grace and lose his head.

There are passages in the book that brilliantly bring alive Tudor England — its magnificent courts, costumes, jousts and pomp along with the back alleys and the underbelly of London. There are vivid descriptions of England’s sounds, sights and smells and a particularly amusing account of Hans Holbein agonising over how to paint the now bloated and far-from-attractive Henry VIII in a flattering light. (In an interview, Mantel speaks of how Holbein’s portraits of both Cromwell and Henry VIII stayed with her as she wrote her three books.)

There is all the high-intensity drama and action one would expect from Mantel. But once the business of executions, seductions, marriages and treason is over, somewhere around the halfway point in the book, the narrative starts to sag. The accounts increasingly take on a chronicle-like quality, fabulous for a history buff, but not so much for someone who wants a fast-paced Tudor thriller like Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies .

The Mirror and the Light doesn’t somehow build up to a nail-biting climax. There is too much meandering for a lay reader whose arms have begun to ache from the weight of the book. And alas, attention slips from Thomas Cromwell’s unfolding saga to how many more pages there are left to read.

The Mirror and the Light;

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