Even admirers of Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy may find it hard to reach the end of the 900-page finaleby Freya Johnston / February 24, 2020 / Leave a comment
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…