The Mirror & the Light is the final novel in Hilary Mantel’s Booker-Prize winning trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, “the second man in England,” Henry VIII’s chief counsellor (and, ultimately, thorn in his side). Mantel spoke to The Globe and Mail from her home in England.
I spoke with you in 2012 on the publication of the second novel in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies. You said that the book’s characters lived in your head and spoke to you. Having finished that novel, not having them in your head anymore, left “a little bit of a hole” and gave you “something of a sinking feeling.” What is the feeling now with the trilogy is completed?
Well, a lot has happened since we met, in that I became very involved with the theatre productions of the novels [with the Royal Shakespeare Company in England and on Broadway]. The plays occupied a lot of time for me. I took on a whole new job, and the characters took on a whole new dimension. Now that the book is finished, I’m straight into the new stage version, which I’m writing in collaboration with Ben Miles, who plays Cromwell. For me, there hasn’t been a second’s pause – as soon as Thomas Cromwell’s head was off, it went straight back on again. We just recirculated him into a different medium.
Speaking of losing his head, on the first page of Wolf Hall you hear Cromwell’s father, Walter, say, “So now get up,” a line that is repeated on the last page of The Mirror & the Light as he waits for the axe to fall. I read that you had written Cromwell’s death scene quite early on. Is that true?
Yes, I wrote probably eight or 10 versions of it. As soon as I’d written the first paragraph of Wolf Hall, I could see right through to when he would die. It would take us back to that moment when he’s 15 or so and he thinks he’s going to die in the next few moments. We’d be back to that body on the ground, that flickering consciousness, that very close focus when all you can see is your own blood.
This was a kind of instant flash forward. It wasn’t until the day came that I was due to finish the book that I laid out all these versions and then I began to pick and choose and come up with more or less the final form. As a result, I didn’t have this great emotional moment where I thought, my man’s dead! Because I’d been there before.
Often at the end of a book, it’s not so much a matter of what happens as what feeling do you want to leave your readers with?
And what feeling was that?
I wanted to leave them feeling that possibly a tragedy had occurred, that something valuable had gone out of the world that wasn’t going to be retrieved. But also, the last thing that Cromwell sees is the light, so there is a kind of hope, in his universe anyway. As a true believer, there is a next world for him. I hope it leaves the reader feeling pity, but not feeling glum and miserable. You want the reader to feel something creative has happened, not just something destructive.
His fate is determined by a number of things – his own flaws, the events of the day, the whims of the king. Yet, you sense all along that he suspects what’s coming. He says to Eustace Chapuys, Emperor Charles V’s envoy, “This affair has broken me. I’m a dead man.”
Often when Cromwell uses statements like that, he’s acting. Especially when he’s dealing with Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, there’s always this kind of wink and nod. They’re two real players. It’s to Chapuys that Cromwell usually issues these bulletins about how beleaguered he is. But behind that there’s an appreciation of how very real the risk is.
There’s a structural flaw in Cromwell’s career, and there’s nothing he can do about it. He can make himself wealthy, but he can’t make himself one of the great ancient landowners. It’s very hard for him to get any support outside his ministerial setup. Almost every force is against him. He hasn’t got the ordinary people behind him because they think he’s upsetting the natural order. They should be ruled by noblemen – that’s God’s design. It seems to me miraculous that he was able to achieve as much as he did.
I locate the cause of his fall not in his individual character, but in the run of events. There is a flaw, there is a weakness, but it’s not so much in his character, but in how he was born.
One of the frustrating things about [researching] Cromwell is there’s nothing left that’s personal. There are letters, but they’re not personal letters. If you want to know about him, you have to look at what other people thought about him.
I can’t help but read the novel through a Brexit lens. Cromwell is often called a modern man – he’s lived in Europe, he speaks several languages, he’s trying to keep those bridges open. Do you see a connection between what’s going on now and what you were writing about?
If you look at this country now, it seems to be casting back to a time when – well, a time that I think never existed, when Britain was ready to stand alone. It’s part of the all-consuming nostalgia that lies over these little islands like a thick fog. At the moment there are so many people who can’t see through that. You feel, like Cromwell, that Britain separate from Europe makes no sense at all.
Brexit isn’t like the Reformation. It’s almost a unique national folly. It shows that the European project hasn’t taken deep roots with many people. There’s always been a concentration on what’s wrong with Europe. The people who think it works haven’t made their case. They thought it was self-evident and it was all about economics. But you have to go one step further, you have to embed it in people’s imaginations and that hasn’t happened.
There’s a great line in the novel: “What is a woman’s life? Do not think because she is not a man, she does not fight.” The women in the book fight their patches, but in a much more subtle way. How did telling their stories inform the book?
It was fascinating. In many eras of history, in a lot of stories you might want to tell about the past, it’s hard to maintain that women are exerting real power and agency, and I’m very much against falsifying that. But in the reign of Henry VIII, they really are central. That era is all about a woman – the question is, which woman? Which woman will gratify Henry by producing his heir?
For all the ministers and the counsellors and their cleverness and power, they can’t do the one thing the king really needs. There’s a whole network below the male network of the court and Cromwell realizes there’s a kind of power in the women’s world that is equal to the male power on the surface. He’s attuned to them, and careful to keep them on side.
Cromwell is visited by the ghost of Cardinal Wolsey, and he thinks he sees the spirit of Thomas More, among others. And of course your own wonderful memoir is called Giving Up the Ghost. In what ways is this book a ghost story?
One of the things Cromwell realizes is that just as he says there are no endings, there are really no fresh starts. He’s making a new country, but he realizes what a tenacious grip the past has. People are not eager to embrace the new, unless you can convince them of the advantage of it. That’s where the ghosts lie. The generations under the soil do live in our imagination, sticking us to the old way of doing things.
He’s taking the statues out of the churches, but what the saints mean in people’s imaginations – that’s still there.
Cromwell wonders, at one point, whether any of the reforms he’s implemented will survive him. So how does modern Britain still reflect his vision?
He knew it would last because he made people economic stakeholders in the Reformation. There was a new economic age of cultural expansion – so much of that flowed from the Reformation itself.
Some of the things he attempted and failed to do were very interesting. You can see the faint glimmers of a welfare state policy, with the idea that if people are poor, if they’re unemployed, maybe it’s not their fault. It comes from bigger forces and maybe the state has to do something about it. His Poor Law policy failed, but the measures he tried to bring in were radical and would have changed the way that people feel about poverty and economic success. He was really quite far-sighted.
The other thing is the English Bible. It would have come along, but the fact that he and [Thomas] Cranmer [Archbishop of Canterbury] together made it their cause made it happen sooner rather than later. Giving people this idea that your language is not inferior. You can actually talk to God in it, and what could be better than that? It was a confirmation that ordinary life and ordinary language matter.
When we last spoke, you talked about how you had great sympathy for the current Queen, for the ways she’s dealt with all of her trials with fortitude. It seems the family is fracturing a bit more now. Are we going to see the end of the British monarchy?
I can’t see it ending within a generation. William looks very much the continuity candidate. He’s already intent on conveying a certain image, which is what the monarchy has tried to cement for many years now – a stable family life and so on. Certainly they’re planning long-term. But I cannot believe it’s going to last another 50 years. Maybe that’s just my lack of imagination. It’s a remarkably resilient institution.
It will feel like a huge moment when we finally part with her. It’s a paradox, because she’s so distant, she’s so unknown, and yet people keep this little image of her which is very personal.
BY THE NUMBERS:
- Worldwide sales of Wolf Hall (translated into 36 languages) and Bring Up the Bodies (translated into 31 languages)
- Monetary value of Mantel’s two Man Booker wins – once in 2009 for Wolf Hall and then again in 2012 for Bring Up the Bodies
- Amount the BBC spent on candles during production of its six-part Wolf Hall series, according to director Peter Kosminsky
- Number of viewers who tuned in weekly for the BBC Two show, making it the broadcaster’s most popular drama ever
- Number of performances of Wolf Hall Parts One and Two on Broadway in 2015. The play is coming to the Stratford Festival this year, with 30 performances planned.
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