The Surprising Inevitability of Hilary Mantel's the Mirror and the Light

The Mirror & the Light | Hilary Mantel | Henry Holt and Co.

It is considered bad form in the literary world to speak too much of oneself in a book review. The reasoning is that it is distracting and self-indulgent — a potential reader wants to know about the book, not the book reviewer. It is a sound practice and I abide by it, but in this case it cannot be helped. Like Mr. Darcy, in vain have I struggled, my feelings cannot be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I have admired and loved the first two books of this trilogy.

Like many readers, I go through intense reading phases; perhaps for a month or two I might conduct a light perusal of crime fiction while researching how to garden, followed by, say, several months’ obsession with one author’s entire canon, interspersed with a heavy amount of poetry or essays. When I encountered author Hilary Mantel, I was immersed in historical fiction. The War of the Roses and the Tudor Period was my particular addiction at the time, so I picked up the first book of Mantel’s trilogy, Wolf Hall (2009), for $1.75 at a thrift store after skimming the dust jacket and discovering it was set during the reign of Henry VIII. Fiction about the bloodthirsty king and his unfortunate wives abounds, so I almost thrust it aside, but I was intrigued that the protagonist was Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief minister, which is a polite euphemism for what more jaundiced souls might call his “fixer.” (“The king never does an unpleasant thing,” quips Queen Jane. “Lord Cromwell does it for him.”) Cromwell, ambitious and unscrupulous, was the shadowy figure lurking behind the scenes who procured for Henry whatever he wanted, no matter how depraved and self-serving. In other words, Cromwell is one of history’s most notorious villains. My interest piqued, I bought the book—and found myself utterly captivated from the first page, a captivation that held me in thrall through the next installment, Bring Up the Bodies (2012). I am not alone in my ardor. Both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies won the Man Booker prize, making Mantel the first woman ever to win the coveted award twice, and the only author to win for a sequel. The two novels have been translated into thirty languages and have sold more than five million copies. 

This brings us to the 2020 publication of the final installment of the trilogy: The Mirror the the Light. Those like me who loved the first two novels have been waiting since 2012 —that’s almost a decade—for this book. Many of us have wondered how it could possibly satisfy its avid readership, partly because of the hype, but also because anybody with a basic concept of foreshadowing and access to the internet knows how the story ends: Cromwell on the chopping block. This is no spoiler; it is historical fact. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies give us Cromwell’s rise; it remains to The Mirror and the Light to chronicle his fall. The task is harder than you might expect, because although Cromwell is unequivocally a bad guy, the books make us love him. We intuited his future downfall from the first pages of Wolf Hall when we yearned for him to rise up, bloody and unbowed, from under his vicious father’s boot, but still we resist his impending doom. Mantel insists that she writes ghost stories, and I believe her, because the pages of these novels feel haunted by the clamoring dead. Mantel writes with intense immediacy, making even the most well-known historical events—Anne Boleyn on the block, for instance—feel as fragile as a spider’s web, as though perhaps we were wrong after all; surely the gossamer threads cannot hold in such turmoil and the beleaguered queen will break free. In Mantel’s hands, each inevitable fact is a surprise. Although we know how it ends, every page is fraught with the longing of ghosts, as though maybe this time it will all be different. 

This review is featured in Issue #14, coming soon. Be sure to subscribe now so you don’t miss anything!

The Mirror and the Light begins with the execution of Anne Boleyn. (“Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away.”) Cromwell, who orchestrated her death, is at the zenith of his powers. (“A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner.”) The son of a blacksmith, he has been of such use to the king over many years that he now wields vast power in the realm surpassed only by the king himself. In this position, Cromwell of course has many enemies. At Anne Boleyn’s execution, he stands among them, watching attendants stuff the slender Queen’s headless body into an arrow chest, her bloody head tucked under her feet. The Duke of Suffolk, who hated the Queen, refuses to kneel even at her death. (“I’d have put her on a dunghill,” he says, “And the brother underneath her. And I’d have made their father witness it.”) From this vantage point we perceive the arc of the book; we know it will end with another severed head, another pitiless crowd. Thus, the novel is haunted not only by the ghosts of the past, but also by the bogy of the encroaching future. 

The book chronicles a four year period, 1536-1540, during which Mantel explores Cromwell’s remaining years on multiple levels, both public and private. Well known for her meticulous research, Mantel had less to work with in this novel than in her previous offerings. When he was under political attack during these years, Cromwell’s defenders probably destroyed incriminating documents in order to protect him, creating gaps in the historical record that leave a contemporary novelist with decisions to make. Mantel takes a simple approach to the problem. “I think it was Faulkner who says, write down what they say and write down what they do,” she told The Paris Review. “I don’t have pages and pages in which I say what Cromwell thought. I tell you what he says, I tell you what he does, and you read between the lines.” 

This is nearly true, but not completely. If all the story required was the bare facts, a wikipedia article would suffice, but The Mirror and the Light is a literary feat of breathtaking scope and mature complexity. Mantel may scrupulously record only the factual information that her research uncovered — no cheating — but she is also past mistress of subtext. Like Dickinson, she tells the truth, but tells it slant. On every page we find masterful writing that both disguises and reveals. (“He, Cromwell, moves back toward his master, the knife in his grip. He stands in the doorway, words on his lips: Majesty, I find I have this knife in my hand, though it belongs to you.”) History, of course, is unforgiving, and a novelist cannot rewrite it, but we get the sense that Mantel would if she could, as if she loves these flawed and flouted ghosts, pleads for them, and longs to retroactively save them, but, alas, speaking for them with empathy and precision is the only service she can offer. 

One way she speaks for her beloved ghosts is by examining the society in which they live and move and have their being, a man’s world where talent and ambition ram against rigid social boundaries. “I’m very concerned about not pretending they’re like us. That’s the whole fascination—they’re just not. It’s the gap that’s so interesting.” Cromwell, a commoner, makes himself great in a culture that dismisses self-made greatness. Cromwell inhabits a role of immense power, but it is artificial; everything hinges on the king’s favor, and with such a king, the favor cannot last. French ambassador Chapuys taunts, “For when all is said, you are a blacksmith’s son. Your whole life depends on the next beat of Henry’s heart, and your future on his smile or frown.” At the king’s command, Cromwell acts, but only the king gets the credit and only Cromwell takes the blame. “His chief duty (it seems just now) is to get the king new wives and dispose of the old.”

This Cromwell does in particularly spectacular fashion, but the consequences are far-reaching. At first it seems to solidify his power, but the center cannot hold. Henry grows bloodthirsty, and Cromwell, tormented by his own ghosts, must wield the knife. The tension builds. This is where Mantel achieves true greatness as a novelist: she creates suspense where none should exist. Cassandra-like, we know his doom but cannot prevent it. As Cromwell walks the razor’s edge of his increasingly fragile position, we are behind his eyes, experiencing firsthand his calculation, conscience, strategy, hubris, and panic, but we know what he does not know: it will all come to naught. He will fail. He will die. In spite of his extraordinary talent, careful planning, and relentless energy, Cromwell will not overcome the odds; he will be destroyed by the very king whose nearly unlimited power he helped create. 

But men are not the only characters in the novel. Cromwell’s main job is curating women for the king, and Mantel examines these relationships with incisive pathos. Cutthroat Tudor England may ostensibly be a man’s world, but, as Cromwell knows, women hold the essential power. It is their bodies, their wombs, their life-giving capacity, that (quite literally) form the beating heart of the world’s story. Mantel presents the ruthless society in which women have one job: entice men into the bedroom and emerge pregnant with healthy male babies. When advised not to “pull the women into it,” Cromwell responds, “The women are already in it. Its all about women. What else is it about?” Like all Tudor men, Cromwell sees women essentially as stock breeders—the king and court must have heirs. But he is also a widower, lonelier than he himself knows, and it is ever the softness of women that unlocks his latent longing for companionship. The relationships between Cromwell and the various women of the story—particularly Princess Mary and his daughter-in-law Bess —are deeply moving as we sometimes catch a glimpse into his long-sublimated desire for meaningful human connection.  

Mantel lays bare Tudor society with accuracy and compassion, but the most compelling aspect of her trilogy has always been the interior world of Cromwell himself. The motifs of mirrors and light are in sharp relief throughout the novel, but with Cromwell most of all. At Anne Boleyn’s beheading, Cromwell is quite taken with the executioner’s sword. “You would not guess it to look at him now, but his father was a blacksmith; he has affinity with iron...everything that is made molten, or wrought, or given a cutting edge.” Later we learn that the sword bears an inscription: Speculum justiciae, ora pro nobis. Mirror of justice, pray for us. To Cromwell, the mirror of justice is the king. “Your Majesty is the only prince. The mirror and the light of other kings.” Henry, who is by this time the mirror of Cromwell’s abusive father—another ferocious man who subdues Cromwell under his boot—“repeats the phrase, as if cherishing it: the mirror and the light.” Whether Cromwell sees the reflection of his father in Henry, his abused childhood in his subjugated adulthood, we do not know: Cromwell is often blind, groping in the dark, and eventually the narrative reveals that it was the executioner’s sword that was the true mirror all along. 

Always a single-minded man, in this novel Cromwell disintegrates. Throughout the story, the clear lines of his carefully-constructed life begin to wobble, splinter, and refract. This is where Mantel’s prose approaches unbearable beauty. As the foundations quake, every aspect of Cromwell’s once-stable self begins to crack, and his obsessive inner reflections reveal the fault lines. 

You look back into your past and say, is this story mine? Is that flitting figure mine, that shape easing itself through alleys, evader of the curfew, fugitive from the day? Is this my life, or my neighbour’s conflated with mine, or a life I have dreamed and prayed for; is this my essence, twisting into a taper’s flame, or have I slipped the limits of myself—slipped into eternity, like honey from a spoon? Have I dreamt myself, undone myself, have I forgotten too well?

As Cromwell is swept toward his inevitable end, we find ourselves resisting more with every step, straining back against what has always been irrevocable, but by the end feels nearly intolerable. The mirror of justice is too glaring for us; we want a different mirror, a different light. “Henry says: ‘Did I do right?’ Right? The magnitude of the question checks him, like a hand on his arm.“ Mantel’s magnificent effect is the revelation that in the end, we will all cry for mercy, not justice — even for the villains. But this is a book about the executioner’s sword, and the best we can hope for is that Cromwell will find in the afterlife what he once saw in a vision of the dead: “He sees how they are visible, and how they shine. They are distilled into a spark, into an instant. There is air between their ribs, their flesh is honeycombed with light, and the marrow of their bones is molten with God’s grace.”

Heidi White is managing editor of the FORMA, host of the FORMA Podcast, and a regular contributor to the Close Reads Podcast Network. She lives and teaches in Colorado Springs, CO.