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  • Title: The Mirror and the Light
  • Author: Hilary Mantel
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Canada
  • Pages: 912

Perhaps the only flashy, attention-getting thing in The Mirror and the Light, the superb, long-awaited conclusion to Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, is the first sentence.

“Once the queen’s head is severed he walks away.”

Given that Bring Up the Bodies, the second volume, essentially ended with Anne Boleyn’s execution, we are thrust immediately back into that moment. For readers, seven years have passed since the earlier book (nine since Wolf Hall, which began the trilogy). We finally have this vast resolution. Because this is Tudor England, so much chronicled in book and film and television, the narrative arc is known. It is, however, all in the telling. And Mantel is a distinctive, assured teller, with a clear sense of what she wants to do and what she will avoid.

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Read more: Author Hilary Mantel on Brexit, the monarchy and why Thomas Cromwell will always haunt her

In a popular culture of pace and action, Mantel instead offers depth and texture, nuance and immersion. Once again, we see everything through the eyes of Henry’s principal secretary, Cromwell. Mantel’s Cromwell serves two thematic functions for his creator (he serves many roles for his king). She has shaped her trilogy as an antidote to the vilification of him that mirrored the veneration – then and into our own time – of Thomas More, his great rival. Mantel, it is safe to say, is not fond of More. In addition, Cromwell, in his rise from a commoner’s obscurity by way of his wits and ambition and shrewd grasp of a changing world, is her prototype of a “new man,” marking the beginnings of a shift from a late medieval world toward a modern one. There have been, in other words, agendas in these books. How could there not be with an author of ambition?

Indeed, seldom have the virtues of a work so closely mirrored those of its protagonist. Mantel is not a writer with a marketer’s focus; she is one with immense intelligence and an attention to (and memory for) detail in a hugely crowded canvas – and those are, indeed, the principal strengths of Cromwell as she has created him.

Mantel’s Cromwell is still rather perfect, as he was in the earlier books. He not only knows everything about everything and everyone, he is also the quickest in the room to react and hold Henry upright when the King takes ill: “He moves so fast that he is able to grip the King by his upper arms and steadies him as he sways.” He’s described at another point as ambling along, but still arriving before everyone else. The reader moves along with him, sees all in the way he sees it and thinks about it.

Mantel is exceptionally skilled at letting plot arcs emerge gradually, as from the shadows of a palace chamber away from the fire. It is in this way that we become aware of the main engine of the narrative in the first part of the novel: Cromwell’s need to deal with Lady Mary, Henry’s first child, by Katherine of Aragon, now illegitimate with the annulment of that marriage. Cromwell has promised the King that Mary will sign a document acknowledging Henry as the head of the Church of England. Mary, staunchly Catholic, has been refusing to do so. It seems possible she may be killed. A ban from court and quiet retirement for an obdurate Catholic daughter – a rallying point for the King’s religious and political enemies – does not appear to be on offer. The resolution here is beautifully unfolded. And Cromwell’s dealings with Mary will return at the very end.

Death is everywhere a threat at this unstable court. Disease, childbirth, accident. Execution. Cromwell is brilliantly controlling but utterly at the mercy of the King. He has no history at all, no great-family allegiances to rely on, this dangerously powerful son of a blacksmith-turned-brewer. His dependence on Henry is absolute, as is Henry’s on him. He will die if the King does – and possibly if the King does not.

This raises another aspect of an enormously engaging work. Few can have read this far in the trilogy without knowing the broad outlines of Henry’s time, his queens, the religious conflicts, More’s ascendance and then his fall at Cromwell’s hands, as well as Cromwell’s own fall. But in Greek tragedy, no one in the audience in Athens didn’t know what happened to Oedipus, Antigone or Agamemnon. The same is true for much of this material. But Mantel is thoughtful, not only clever, and has purposes in mind here, for those willing to patiently explore with her. The commercial and critical success of the first two volumes suggests a large number of readers have been willing to do so.

Her decision to essentially always be with Cromwell forces narrative paths, writer’s choices. At one point, the story tracks a rapidly growing northern rebellion, but must do so from a distance, since Cromwell is not there – he is by the King, as always. Following the course of far-off, reported events is deftly handled, the way a skilled poet deploys the constraints of a sonnet, making a strength out of the necessity of form.

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Throughout, in fact, there is that feeling of a deeply skilled author working around and with the challenges of her narrative framework. The middle sections, much concerned with the day-to-day life of court, evoke a slow river winding through Tudor England. Cromwell’s is a draining existence: daybreak to late night, meetings, letters, notes dictated or written, hastening back and forth to wherever Henry is, dealing with an almost stupefying range of matters from the trivial (he improves the quality of plums in England) to the gravely important – threats of war from Europe or world-defining matters of the King’s marriages. Meanwhile, Cromwell is dealing with the abbeys, convents and monasteries that the crown is now claiming. He is trying to have a rebellious Catholic Englishman (from a family that could claim the throne) murdered in Italy. A heretic is burned. A caged leopard arrives at Cromwell’s house. Its documents are missing. They do not know who sent it or for whom. It needs dealing with. Feeding it plums will not do. Henry says to him: “If ever a man was thorough, you are that man.”

The novel here becomes an exercise in giving the reader a full-to-bursting sense of Cromwell’s world. It is done without any sense of ostentation, of showing off research. Not for this author a swashbuckler’s derring-do. Instead, an awareness is shaped of a dangerous set of people surrounding a monarch in declining vitality. Cromwell’s power and isolation are both laid out. He bestrides his world, but has no foundation upon which to stand. He knows that if the King turns on him, the knives will come out, literally. He carries a hidden knife, always. It is referred to many times.

The writing is acute, the observations clinical. A new Spanish ambassador enters – “Don Diego is one of those men who requires a big space around himself” – and in a sentence we have a wry, crisp picture of the man. “You should try not to die at the turn of the year,” Cromwell thinks, looking at a gravedigger, because the ground is too hard. Mantel’s reimagining of this time, her awareness of everyday detail, extends to knowing the challenge of burials in mid-winter. It is organic, integral, more than a little astonishing.

Just as she’s not exercised by action or erotic scenes (those staples of so much Tudor fiction), Mantel does not strive for humour, despite our smiles at Don Diego. It is not foregrounded, but she’s too clever not to find it. Most often in Cromwell’s own wit, but sometimes it is as direct as an unexpected simile. The King’s advisers, around a council table in a tense time, "look nobly intent, like men trying to hold back a fart.” Fart jokes?

Yes. But there is a point to this, yet again. Tudor times were notoriously vulgar in their humour. Shakespeare was hardly immune – someone is asked the time in Romeo and Juliet: “The bawdy hand of the dial is full upon the prick of noon.” One gets a sense that this facet of the time and place, too, has been internalized by the author, so deep is her engagement, after years on this great labour.

The great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “Around the ghost of myself now orbits the weight of the past. It is infinite.” One cannot escape the feeling that Mantel would agree, as far as these characters and times she has lived with and envisaged for so long.

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There is a growing awareness of an author’s compassion in this final volume, pity for lives lived – and, by implication, through the agency all good fiction has, for our lives, for the reader’s own existence. Good books can see us, sometimes reinvent us. As the book turns for home and an ending, here is Cromwell: “When I was a young man, he thinks, I needed all my strength. Pity was a luxury I might one day afford, like fine white bread or a book …” We can see it in this book.

The story proceeds to the well-known ending. The disastrous first encounter between Henry and Anne of Cleves must be told by report to Cromwell, but we have been prepared for this device. The tale reaches the reader the way it reaches him. Young Katherine Howard, vivacious instrument of an ambitious family, makes her appearance at the court of a sexually anxious, aging king and catches his eye – as planned. The now unwanted marriage to Anne is laid at Cromwell’s door as a mistake, along with other sins suddenly hatched by rivals seeing weakness.

There is little sentimentality in the ending, although one cannot but be moved. We are witnesses to a very old tale and have shared in a long journey. “You are my past now, and I am yours,” Cromwell’s daughter tells him. These characters become the reader’s past, too, as we conclude.

Vivid people have been created here: subtle, complex, fearful, greedy, treacherous, foolish, loyal – human. We have engaged closely with the most feared one, that capricious, larger-than-life King and – above all – we know the Cromwell that Mantel has offered us over three books and 1,800 pages. If she seems reluctant to part with him, so, very likely, will the reader be. Near the end, he thinks again on his great rival More, many years dead, and reflects wryly that More is lately being spoken of as a martyr. And what of himself? “Most will not think me a martyr for anything, except the great cause of getting on in life.” That has become, in this memorable, potent invention of him, a great cause indeed.

Dear reader, let us know:
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