Time moves in a mysterious way. Wolf Hall, the first instalment of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, appeared more than a decade ago. Its 650 pages covered the years from roughly 1500 to 1535. Three years later came Bring Up the Bodies, which in 410 pages created a tight tragic narrative about Cromwell’s part in the fall of Anne Boleyn over the single year 1535-36. Eight years after that the 883 pages of The Mirror and the Light dropped with a thud through my letterbox – some letterboxes may require modification to accommodate its girth. It covers a little more than four years of historical time, from the execution of Anne Boleyn in May 1536 to (no spoilers here, since this is where the whole three-act tragedy has always been heading) Cromwell’s execution in late July 1540.
The Mirror and the Light has all the dark witty glitter of the earlier volumes in the trilogy. But setting a novel in the years between 1536 and 1540 is a tough ask. Even Diarmaid MacCulloch’s excellent biography of Cromwell (which appeared after Bring Up the Bodies, and which Mantel praises generously on its dust-jacket) struggles to hold together all the different national and international and secular and religious events of these years. Anne Boleyn is beheaded. Jane Seymour becomes queen, has a son, dies. Abbeys are dissolved. The Plantagenet Pole family conspires against the crown. The rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace rises in the North, unhappy with reforms in the Church, and is put down. Henry VIII gets a bad leg, courts multiple possible brides, decides there are heretics both to the left and right of him, then marries Anne of Cleves in order to secure an alliance with German princes, and incidentally to protect the supply of alum vital to the English cloth industry. Henry fails to consummate the marriage, looks for a way out, and turns against the architect of the match, Thomas Cromwell, who is beheaded on the very day his king marries Katherine Howard, niece of Cromwell’s arch-enemy the reactionary Duke of Norfolk (who in Mantel’s version resembles an ungenial version of Sir Ector in T.H. White’s Sword in the Stone). As Thomas Boleyn, Anne’s father, puts it in The Mirror and the Light, ‘we have seen events crowded into a week, that in ordinary times would have sustained the chroniclers for a decade.’
Mantel avoids the ‘and then and then and then another damn thing’ of the artless chronicle principally by making The Mirror and the Light continue the long, diffuse revenge plot that unifies the first two volumes of the trilogy. Her Thomas Cromwell is a loyal servant of Cardinal Wolsey. In Bring Up the Bodies he revenged himself on those who engineered his master’s fall by having them executed along with Anne Boleyn: ‘look at what Cromwell has wreaked, in two years, on Wolsey’s enemies,’ public gossip declares. Underlying The Mirror and the Light is a buried and ultimately frustrated sequel to this plot. People, including Cromwell himself, gradually realise that the person who broke Wolsey’s heart was not Anne Boleyn, or her brother George, or Smeaton or Brereton or Weston, or any of the people on whom Cromwell avenged his former patron in 1536, but Henry himself: ‘If his [Wolsey’s] heart broke, who broke it? No one but the king himself.’ Cromwell does not consciously pursue revenge against this most dangerous of adversaries, but he thinks about doing so just about enough for his enemies to persuade the king that this is what he wants to do – that he wants to thwart Henry’s desire to remarry after Jane Seymour’s death, and that he wants himself to marry Mary, the king’s daughter, so he can set his own heirs on the throne. Cromwell can flatter Henry by telling him ‘Your Majesty is the only prince. The mirror and the light of other kings,’ but, as the king says, ‘he has never forgiven me for Wolsey.’
As in previous volumes, Mantel tells Cromwell’s story in the third person semi-historical present. Present actions are interspersed with memories from his past, which resurface at moments of pressure. As Cromwell gets close to his end these memories become darker, as though he is seeing finally into his own depths: ‘words fall about him in a drizzling haze, and he finds himself wrapped in the climate of his childhood.’ The smell of Father John Forest being burned in May 1538 makes him recall the (fictional) episode, originally rehearsed in Wolf Hall, in which the ‘what – eight years old?’ (in Wolf Hall ‘nine or so’) Cromwell witnesses the burning of the Lollard Joan Boughton at Smithfield in 1494, and her co-religionists smear ‘on the back of his hand a long streak of fat and ash’. He remembers his first murder, when he stabbed the ‘eel boy’ who taunted him. When he pulls the knife out ‘something comes with it: a loop of his tripes’.
These darkening memories make it seem as though the unenactable revenge plot against Henry has been driven underground and become a process of internal mental retribution, in which Cromwell’s own memories make him come to see himself as the brutal sidekick of a brutal king that historians once believed him to be. When he is finally imprisoned in the Tower these memories become ghosts who visit him as he waits to die. He sees Wolsey (‘in the dusk the cardinal returns, as a disturbance in his vision’), who complains that his body does not lie in the elaborate Italianate tomb Cromwell was in part responsible for commissioning – MacCulloch’s biography makes much of his involvement in this. As Cromwell enters the Bell Tower he sees other people whose deaths he has directly or indirectly caused: ‘There is a figure sitting at the table. Silently he asks, “Is it you?” Thomas More rises from his place, crosses the room and melts into the wall.’ As in the earlier volumes, if you glance out of the corner of your eye in Mantel’s Tudor England you will always see a ghost.
The buried revenge plot is one means by which Mantel shapes the flow of time into a novel. She has many other tricks. Scenes and themes in The Mirror and the Light are closely and cleverly interwoven. Indeed one of these themes is the act of embroidering. Members of the queen’s entourage are set to unpick the monogram ‘HA’, Henry and Anne, from courtly fabrics in order to make way for the initials of the new queen. The terrifyingly self-possessed women of the Pole family (the mother and sister of Cardinal Pole, whom Cromwell tries and fails to have assassinated) produce emblematic embroidery which entwines their family’s pansies with Princess Mary’s marigolds, and which, when the family’s crash comes, is used as evidence against them.
Sometimes the historical ironies are a little too neatly done: Henry VIII’s actual leg gives way just before Holbein paints him standing in his famous Tudor power-pose, codpiece out and legs akimbo, defying all-comers, with Jane Seymour beside him. The juxtaposition of the king as icon, mirror and light to all princes, and the king as failing body is here overt. More often, oblique parallels between episodes serve to turn the massive historical mess of these years into an artful but defiantly asymmetrical structure. The pregnancy of Jane Seymour with Henry’s hoped-for heir is darkly shadowed by the phantom pregnancy of Lady Lisle, wife of the governor of Calais. An interview with Henry’s daughter Mary, during which Cromwell tries to impress on her the need to obey her father or die resisting him, both of them conscious of the fact that she is of marriageable age and he unmarried, is paralleled with a scene where Cromwell meets Wolsey’s illegitimate daughter, who accuses him of betraying her father, and to whom he ineptly and accidentally proposes marriage (he is tartly refused).
The scenes in which Cromwell attempts to persuade independently minded women to do what the king wants are the best in the book (the episode with Wolsey’s daughter is one of the most vividly drawn of these). They enable Mantel’s Cromwell to employ his distinctive form of charm with menaces, while her female characters (in particular the magnificently stubborn Princess Mary) remain self-destructively defiant in ways he cannot always comprehend. A particular highlight is the treatment of the rash engagement between the king’s niece Margaret Douglas and Thomas Howard, younger half-brother of the Duke of Norfolk. The engagement was rash to the point of being suicidal because after the death of Henry’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, in July 1536 Margaret was very close indeed to the succession, since Henry’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, were both at this point not regarded as legitimate. Cromwell softly suggests a way for Margaret Douglas to foreswear Howard and avoid the fury of the king: ‘You say that Lord Thomas has visited you in the queen’s chambers. All come there, I do suppose, for purposes of pastime … There need be no sinister intent.’ When Margaret refuses to take his hints and renounce her engagement, Cromwell drafts in front of her an act which would make this treason, and the menace supplants the charm.
The episode of Margaret Douglas’s betrothal also allows Mantel to play some of the elegant games with historical sources which have been one of the less obvious pleasures of the series. Thomas Howard wrote several love poems to Margaret Douglas, and she wrote some in return. These survive in the Devonshire Manuscript, a poetic miscellany gathered and curated by a group of women at the Henrician court (Mary Shelton, Mantel writes, ‘was clerk of the poetry book’). Howard’s inept versification becomes a running joke. He is called ‘Thomas the Lesser’ to distinguish him from his half-brother the duke, and Cromwell wonders, ‘what is the Lesser for? What does he do with his time? It is he who is the bad poet. His lines go thump and flop. Me/see. Too/do. Thing/bring. Flip-flap, they go, pit-pat.’ Cromwell, the Privy Seal who is privy to everything, intercepts the poems and uses them against their authors. Howard ‘fears everyone knows where his cock has been just by reading his rhymes’. The poetry of the Tudor court is notoriously oblique in its relationship to the lives of its authors, largely because by the later part of Henry’s reign it was not a good idea to say exactly what you thought on any topic, be it power or religion or love. Mantel uses these slippery poetic threads of evidence to lead her through labyrinths of courtly intrigue.
And she has fun on the way. Thomas Wyatt was a poet in a different league from Thomas Howard. He becomes Cromwell’s protégé, and his emergence as the chief poetic voice of the period is another thread that runs through The Mirror and the Light. Initially he is on the receiving end of jokes about his premature baldness and is something of a joke himself: he writes a sonnet ‘if he stubs a toe’. Then he is given the impossible task of trying to capture Cardinal Pole while also disrupting a truce between the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the French king. From this point on he becomes the tongue of the times: ‘His word is just what a diplomat’s word should be: as clear as glass and as unstable as water’; ‘however tight you pin your attention to the page, you feel that something is escaping you, slipping into the air; then some other reader comes along, and reads it different.’ Poems by Wyatt or ascribed to Wyatt – which flirt with treasonable expressions of unhappiness about the deaths of Anne Boleyn and her lovers, or evoke the slippery top of court’s estate – circle in Cromwell’s head as he nears his fall.
Although this final volume may overwhelm with its bulk, it will not disappoint. But there are two questions that might now be asked of the completed trilogy. How has such a hugely intelligent historical fiction managed to be such a popular success? And will it last? These two questions are interconnected, because the Cromwell novels may finally seem just a little too keen on talking to their age to become permanent classics. The Mirror and the Light sometimes contains asides that read like closed captions or spoken footnotes, with one character explaining to the reader something every Tudor person would already know: ‘Archbishop Cranmer is sending me a new translation of the scriptures’. At these moments Mantel might have heeded the words addressed by her Wyatt to Cromwell: ‘Be careful … You are on the brink of explaining yourself.’ Her version of the Tudor court is driven by the almost inexplicable forces that run beneath its surface – its ghostly memories, its semi-conscious fears, its historic animosities – and too much explaining can dispel that evocative Tudor darkness.
Jocular trans-temporal anachronisms, which sometimes make Cromwell sound like a contemporary person teleported into the 1530s, can also make these novels seem a little too eager to please, as when in a flashback to Henry’s accident at the tiltyard in 1536 Cromwell remembers saying to the apparently dead king ‘breathe, you fucker, breathe,’ or when he sounds like an early Tudor Wittgenstein (‘if a lion could speak we could not understand him’) after being asked what a leopard would say if she could talk: ‘Nothing we would understand.’ There are some slightly heavy historical ironies too, as when Henry, the father of Elizabeth I, says: ‘A woman ruler, it is only storing up trouble.’
Mantel’s Cromwell often displays a quasi-modern sensibility which can’t quite believe what is being said and done around him, or even by him. The king asks him, late on, when both men are beginning to lose their grip, to ‘Come apart,’ meaning ‘step aside with me.’ Cromwell reacts with a double-take that all but identifies him with the modern reader of the novel attempting to translate it into contemporary English: ‘He stares at the king. Disassemble? Disperse? Then he recovers himself. “Yes. Of course.” He follows.’ But Cromwell’s ability to melt through time is vital to Mantel’s historical method: ‘is this my essence,’ he himself asks, ‘twisting into a taper’s flame, or have I slipped the limits of myself – slipped into eternity, like honey from a spoon?’ A successful historical novel has to make the past make sense now, and a good way to do that is to have a hero who is some sort of time traveller. And giving the odd wink of contemporaneity to one’s audience as one travels can also help.
Mantel’s project has become a cultural phenomenon of its own, spinning off into plays and TV series (another one based on this book is in the offing), and occasionally it seems as though the prime directives of historical costume drama – always be beautiful, always explain – have fed back into this final instalment. Indeed The Mirror and the Light sometimes reads as though imagined for the screen. The settings of many scenes are glittering National Trust interiors, stuffed with artefacts and rich fabrics, all lovingly re-created and restored, with a genial guide on hand to tell you whose ghost walks through the room every midsummer evening at dusk. Margaret Pole’s private oratory has a table ‘set up for Mass, draped with rich brocade; the altarpiece was of silver, shining indistinct figures going about pious lives’. In the court ‘Henry sits in his nightgown on a gilded and fringed stool, while a pale, perfect morning dawns outside the panes,’ and ‘the queen’s neckline is edged with goldsmiths’ work, from which depend single fat pearls in the shape of tears,’ or alternatively, ‘the tapers are brought in, and mirrored sconces redirect a shivering light; the king’s private rooms, painted and gilded, shine like a jewel box.’ The mirror and the light of the title cast a radiant sheen over their surroundings. At these moments The Mirror and the Light seems like a Life of Cromwell as visualised by Vermeer and reinterpreted by Hollywood.
Slightly Hollywood too (though this may be to overestimate Hollywood) are the implied politics of the trilogy. Mantel is seldom other than pitch-perfect when evoking the complex interplay between religious affinities and personal allegiances in this period. But at a higher level – in her attitudes to characters and religion – the politics of these novels is not just modern but a particular kind of modern. The self-made abused child Cromwell, omnicompetent, dark within but driven by a desire to preserve his son and his loyal followers, ultra-loyal to the memory of Cardinal Wolsey, sympathetic to beleaguered women and bent on reformation, is opposed to a hereditary aristocracy who to a man (unless they happen to be women) are horrible specimens of arrogance and stupidity. Catholic males, like Sir Thomas More, are likely to be sadistic brutes even if they have not had the additional ill fortune to have been born dukes or have earldoms thrust upon them.
Mantel’s treatment of the Howards is particularly cruel. The Duke of Norfolk is a vengeful old idiot, and his eldest son, the Earl of Surrey, another poet, is presented simply as a mega-prick, repeatedly compared to a spider. ‘He glitters, head to toe, as a web glints with dew’, or worse: ‘He whips around, long body glinting like a viper’s and ready to bite.’ Much of this animus can be ascribed to the focalisation of the novels through Cromwell, who was no friend of the Howards, and no doubt the Howards, like most of the landed and ultra-aspirational nobility of the Henrician period, would strike most people today as viciously obsessed with their own status. The Earl of Surrey’s poems often present the poet as a Petrarchan lover, the singular misery, or singular wonderfulness, of whose experience leaves little room for what anyone else might feel – although, in fairness to Surrey, he could write well in the persona of a woman. The representation of the Howards in The Mirror and the Light is more than a little cartoonish, and suggests that this wonderful series of novels, like many of the historical costume dramas from our age which in other respects it outstrips by many country miles, wants to have it both ways with the past. Mantel is well aware that all the gorgeous frocks and glitzy interiors were not just props by which scumbags sought to make themselves look nice: they were the products of scumbaggery, of the aggregation of wealth to a hereditary nobility that self-made men like Cromwell sought to emulate. But still she wants to relish the bejewelled surfaces, the highly wrought fabrics, the flashing beauties of the Henrician age, while also having a go at the people and the institutions which enabled that agglomeration of riches. The aesthetic delight and the political outrage are on a collision course. Mantel is far from alone in wanting to have things both ways, and her love for the beauty that derives from the social structures she loathes does not dissolve the astonishing synthesis of knowledge and imagination in these novels. But it is possible that in fifty years’ time the Cromwell trilogy will seem, like its multiple spin-offs in other media, to belong to a distinctively early-21st-century heritage fiction, which seeks to make the past simultaneously hateful and beautiful, but without quite engaging with the uncomfortably close relationship between its beauty and its horror.