Mantel's final Cromwell novel is superbly accomplished—but ultimately wearying

Even admirers of Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy may find it hard to reach the end of the 900-page finale
February 24, 2020

Hilary Mantel writes history in the present tense. History, in other words, which is both present and tense. “We are trapped in the hour we occupy,” says Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, early in the course of this prodigious piece of verbal and visual fretwork; “it is the present you must reckon with,” as Thomas Cromwell menacingly or perhaps merely sensibly advises her in a later exchange. Characters are ensnared in webs of uncertainty. They do not know what will happen to them from one moment to the next.

The Mirror and the Light completes an astonishing series that began with Wolf Hall in 2009, devoted to the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s principal secretary and Lord Privy Seal (to cite only two of Cromwell’s job titles). Reading the novel, we may be unsure of the destinies of all but the main players—Henry, all those wives—whether due to ignorance, forgetfulness, or to the fact that not quite everyone on Mantel’s cast list of more than a hundred names really existed in Tudor England. Only five are billed at the outset as “Invented”: four of them members of the Cromwell household, one a jailer at the Tower of London. But the line between a real and a fictitious person is necessarily blurred here.

The title playfully suggests fidelity of representation, the sudden apprehension of a true likeness, and perhaps our longing for a form of art that embodies those admirable ends. But the huge, painstaking work of sympathetic reconstruction that follows is busily enmeshed with gossip, obscurity, lies and deceit. The sources and records on which it draws are interwoven with speculations and inventions that could easily be mistaken for documentary evidence. In the genre of historical fiction, the author’s business is to make the dead speak invented words that are true enough to their own time to be persuasively alien to ours, while also being sufficiently comprehensible centuries later. As Mantel’s Cromwell is himself made to say, thereby neatly serving as guarantor of his author’s procedures, “There is nothing against the recreation of the dead, as long as they are plausible.”

In remaking the dead in plausible form, Mantel has forged a ghostly work that is at once past and present and therefore neither of the two. Her prose often reads like a highly accomplished translation from another language, and perhaps that’s just as it should be. A strange pattern of communication is maintained between us (the living) and them (the long dead). There is a suffocating atmosphere of constant intrigue and high-stakes performance. Characters within The Mirror and the Light often seem to know that they are not quite themselves. This is partly because they are under constant surveillance by the agents of an increasingly fractious Henry VIII and therefore unable to speak freely. It is also because the characters seem vaguely conscious of us reading and watching them in a novel. (“You cannot raise the dead,” says Cromwell’s secretary Rafe Sadler.) And many of them are weavers of stories and chroniclers of history themselves.

We often catch Mantel’s people in the acts of handling, observing, judging and creating works of art—painting, needlework and poetry—that cleverly reflect on the imaginative techniques of the story. These scenic details lodge in the mind as poignant efforts at preserving something, just as the trilogy itself is a mammoth authorial endeavour to recapture lost time. Mantel sets out to transform historical clichés into fresh wounds, to extract from battles gone dead a host of newly-felt psychological and emotional truths. For instance, Cromwell’s wife’s needlework—interrupted by her death or merely abandoned years ago so that a stubborn little hummock has been left in the tapestry—is tenderly interpreted from the perspective of a husband who yearns to reanimate its maker. Beauty has a necessary alliance with pain and loss.

The book opens in May 1536 at the point at which volume two, Bring Up the Bodies (2012), concluded: the immediate aftermath of the execution of Anne Boleyn. Following a decade of stockpiling titles and properties, Cromwell finally begins to lose his grip. Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, dies after giving birth to a son and heir in 1537. Months after brokering the king’s non-starter fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves, the royal henchman finds himself accused of heresy and treason.The Mirror and the Light closes in July 1540 with the execution of Cromwell himself, narrated up to the very last moment from the inside of his head and through his painfully heightened senses: he smells alcohol, cloves, sawdust and garlic; his mouth goes dry. “His whole body is shuddering.”

That closing scene is a companion piece, perhaps a mirror image, of the opening one. Mantel, revisiting the stark tableau of Anne’s execution, offers a paragraph of sharp, tender visualisation:

[su_quote]The small body lies on the scaffold where it has fallen: belly down, hands outstretched, it swims in a pool of crimson, the blood seeping between the planks. The Frenchman—they had sent for the Calais executioner—had picked up the head, swaddled it in linen, then handed it to one of the veiled women who had attended Anne in her last moments. He saw how, as she received the bundle, the woman shuddered from the nape of her neck to her feet. She held it fast though, and a head is heavier than you expect. Having been on a battlefield, he knows this from experience too.[/su_quote]

Readers of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies will instantly recognise Mantel’s pictorial techniques, as well as the physical intimacies of the writing and its glancing, confident, seemingly intuitive references to her central character’s apprehension of the world. This writing is crisp, precise and observational. It is Cromwell, a former soldier, who notices the size and disposition of body parts, the seeping blood, the simultaneously frozen and moving properties of the scene; he who clocks the shuddering woman and remembers the sheer weight of a human head. And, as ever in the mind of this character, there is the startling but entirely logical recall of practicalities—for Cromwell is first and foremost an arranger, a fixer, the king’s right-hand man—“they had sent for the Calais executioner.”

The interplay of past and present in this opening scene weaves together different periods and individuals with a supreme lightness of touch. Epoch-making events seemingly chronicled from a neutral, anonymous perspective suddenly turn out to be relayed to us through Cromwell’s partial vision. In continually tracing this path back to Cromwell, the novel reveals time and again that every representation of history emanates from a more or less compromised individual.

Readers should try their hardest to hang on to this vital fact. The Mirror and the Light, like Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, conceals through a mass of beautifully observed local colour the quiet work of advocacy it is constantly performing. Mantel is implicitly urging us to feel more sympathy for one character than for others. She does so by virtue of granting or withholding knowledge of what is going on inside her characters’ heads. The way that she handles the representation of thought processes and the mingling of those processes with an ostensibly impersonal narrative voice—in other words, her free indirect style—seem to rule out access to the ways in which bad characters think. Or perhaps she cannot help but make bad people into better ones. The prose is so raptly and sympathetically attuned to Cromwell that, despite his actions, we are made to find him at worst intriguing, sometimes manipulative—but even then, understandably so.

Where we might have expected him to betray some satisfaction at the demise of his great enemy Anne Boleyn, there are only momentary recollections of her appearance, alive and in death. Are we to assume that Mantel’s Cromwell is somehow dislocated from himself, incapable of viewing Anne’s death as the result of his own machinations? Is the depiction of his thoughts supposed to register a survivor’s method of getting on in life, dodging the unpleasant stuff, suppressing his own responsibility for human suffering? Or is Mantel herself strategically ducking such questions, while dwelling expansively on everything around him that continues to provoke exactly these nagging queries? Cromwell often counsels other people not to dwell on the past: “Don’t look back, he had told the king: yet he too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades.” As in earlier volumes, he thinks often of his own dead wife, his dead children, his childhood. But losses and catastrophes of a more recent vintage, played out on a public scale and engineered by our man himself, are not permitted to occupy the centre of his mind.

At the close of Bring Up the Bodies, we were assured that there were no such things as endings, only beginnings. People are replaceable; the most important and cherished individuals may be supplanted. There is a good joke about the previous volume, and about history more generally, at the start of this one. “The morning’s circumstances are new,” says the narrator (or Cromwell), “and there are no rules to guide us.” But from the reader’s point of view these circumstances are old hat in more ways than one: they happened nearly half a millennium ago, and we’ve already encountered this author’s depiction of them. We know the rules of her game.

*** There is something especially ironic about writing three books devoted to the man who was responsible for the most catastrophic act of vandalism ever suffered by English literature. The dissolution of the monasteries, masterminded by Cromwell, involved the loss of the nation’s libraries—including those of the universities—and of countless other books of a popish, superstitious, or otherwise suspect nature. You have to wonder what Cromwell himself might have made of this controlling, funny, sly trilogy examining the contents of his head and heart. He was himself a supremely effective and economic storyteller, working through hints, rumours, spying and insinuation. In The Mirror and the Light, he is a literary critic of sorts; in his encounters with the poet Thomas Wyatt and his works, he is portrayed as someone who appreciates literature as a valuable form and category of evidence.

All historical novels imply a particular view of history, one that rules out competing views of the past. There is, perhaps, a salutary aspect to the novelist—or indeed the historian, who also has recourse to the imaginative devices of storytelling—bestowing new life on individuals who are usually only deployed, in Samuel Johnson’s words, “to point a moral, or adorn a tale.” In reconstructing the choices they made, the losses they suffered, a historical novelist or novelistic historian reminds us that these big names were once people who did not know what would happen to them, and that the past consists of events and agents that may or may not have appeared significant at the time.

The scale of a narrative affects our feelings. Sweeping history can’t move us: particular moments and individuals can. For all its particularity, though, Mantel’s prose is demanding to the point of remorselessness in its combination of a highly elliptical view of events, an extraordinary attention to detail and the sheer length of her novels. James Naughtie, head of the Booker Prize judging panel in 2009, said the decision to give Wolf Hall the award was “based on the sheer bigness of the book.”

Mantel, it seems, has turned historical fiction into a new—and newly respectable—form partly by the simple expedient of making it inordinately long. One of the joys of Georgette Heyer’s and Jean Plaidy’s frothy romps through the past is how little they ask of the reader; Mantel is, for good and bad, in a different league. Unlike another superlatively accomplished historical novelist, Penelope Fitzgerald, Mantel elects to govern an enormous cast, assuming a high level of involvement by her readers and spinning out her stories beyond the remit of what might reasonably be expected to engage anyone. (Fitzgerald, who probably spent as much time as Mantel researching her historical fiction, would devote months to cutting out what she identified as surplus.) This kind of writing is wearying, in the way that Walter Scott can be wearying, which isn’t to say that it’s not impressive. Fortunately, in The Mirror and the Light, the researcher’s voice now intrudes more rarely than it did in Wolf Hall. One of its few appearances here is to assert that: “It is not, and never has been, the custom of the kings of England to attend the burials of their sons or their wives.”

Reviews of the previous volumes were mostly ecstatic, but a few voices rebelled. Susan Bassnett cited Wolf Hall as a model of bad writing because it simply won’t stop when it should. (“Mantel just wrote and wrote and wrote. I have yet to meet anyone outside the Booker panel who managed to get to the end of this tedious tome”). Andrew Holgate noted in the Sunday Times that Mantel had struggled in the second volume to achieve either pace or clarity of purpose. Bring Up the Bodies was, he argued, “mired in historical material,” its style “curiously flat and leaden.” That book weighed in at a mere 432 pages. The Mirror and the Light, almost 900 pages long, is by far the fattest of the trilogy. Even professed admirers of Mantel may find it hard to finish. Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose 2018 biography of Cromwell shapes and informs The Mirror and the Light, and who recently hailed Mantel as “brilliant,” admitted last year that he had been unable to finish A Place of Greater Safety (1992), her 749-page novel about the French Revolution, “because I found everyone in it utterly repellent.”

One reason why such writing tires you out is that you can’t ever be sure it will leave off or have done. If this trilogy, focalised as it is through one man’s mind, is necessarily co-terminous with Cromwell’s life, it is also true that this doesn’t signal the end of the story: adaptations and spin-offs will be forthcoming. Hilary Mantel may yet prove unwilling to part company with her hero. Six years ago, she told The Guardian: “I thought I was giving five years to Thomas Cromwell, then 10, now I can’t really see an end.”

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, £25)