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Book review: “The Mirror and the Light” by Hilary Mantel

Thomas Cromwell, newly named Earl of Essex, is walking at three in the afternoon to the council chamber with one councilor Audley at his side, another Fitzwilliam behind him.  Norfolk goes before and behind, speaking to his sword-carrying hangers-on.

The wind takes Cromwell’s hat and blows it over toward the river.  Although Cromwell is the highest-ranking man present, the others, against custom, don’t remove their own hats.  “He looks around at the party, and the nape of his neck bristles,” writes Hilary Mantel in The Mirror and the Light.

A young boy runs up with his hat.  They have a conversation, he gives the boy a coin, and then the boy is gone. 

He thinks he sees Stephen Gardiner, a black shape against rosy brick.  Where are the secretaries, he thinks, one or both should attend…His throat is dry. His heart is shaking. His body knows, and his head is catching up; meanwhile, we are bound for a council meeting.

Once the councilors have gathered, he moves to begin the meeting, and Fitzwilliam says, “We do not sit down with traitors.”  And it’s over.

Cromwell’s rise from the son of a brutal blacksmith and brewer to the second most powerful man in England, right-hand man to Henry VIII, has ended.  He is in the Tower.  The only question is how he will die, as a heretic by burning or as a gentleman at the executioner’s block.

“Rules unexplained”

His body knows.

And, so, for a long time, did Cromwell — know that his time in power was not his to determine and know that his loss of power would result in the loss of his life.  He had seen, schemed to arrange and carried out the executions of enough other powerful women and men to know that he was not immune.

He knew that his success and wealth and future were all at the whim of the king, a man of many whims.

In fact, just weeks before he is wrestled into custody in the council room, Cromwell is ruminating on the impossible task faced by him and anyone else seeking to serve the throne and profit from it — and, for that matter, faced by those wanting to grab the throne for themselves or some pliant relative:

We servants of the king must get used to games we cannot win but fight to an exhausted draw, their rules unexplained. Our instructions are full of snares and traps, which mean as we gain we lose.  We do not know how to proceed from minute to minute, yet somehow we do, and another night falls on us in Greenwich, at Hampton Court, at Whitehall.

Readers know

Yes, Cromwell knew that playing the power game in Henry’s court could result in his paying the ultimate price. 

Mantel’s readers, from the first page of her trilogy of novels, know that he did.

From that first page of Wolf Hall (2009) and on through Bring Up the Bodies (2012) and The Mirror and the Light (2020), the reader knows the facts, some or a lot of them, and knows that Cromwell will arrange Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry as his second wife and then her execution.  The reader knows that another wife will die in childbirth and still another will be rejected (but not executed) by the king.

Anyone familiar with English history knows that, in toto, two of his wives were executed, two died natural deaths, one was sent away and the last, the sixth, outlived him. 

And knows that, in the middle of that series of domestic cleavings, Cromwell who did Henry’s bidding for more than a decade was beheaded — outmaneuvered by his enemies and betrayed, if that word can even be used, by a king who benefited so greatly from his Principal Secretary’s machinations.

“Sands of time”

As Mantel tells the story, Cromwell knew near the end that he was losing the battle to keep his head above water.  And, then, Henry promoted him to earl and gave him other high offices.

Sudden pleasure afflicts like sudden pain, and leaves you dizzy, numb.  At such times in your life, if ever you see such times — if fortune favors you, as fortune favors the brave — you lose for a moment a sense of the firm boundaries of yourself, and become light as air.

These signs of Henry’s high regard are especially dizzying since Cromwell had feared he’d lost his sovereign’s favor.

He had thought the sands of time were running out: running through the cracks in the shining bowl of possibility he holds in his hands. “Now all is mended,” he says.

Of course, it wasn’t.

His head alone

It is amazing what Mantel has done with the life of Cromwell.

The first two novels in her trilogy have sold more than 5 million copies worldwide, and the third flew off the shelves when it was published. The three books together total just under 1,900 pages, or about 900,000 words.

That’s a lot of reading to do when you basically know what’s going to happen — when the story being told is history.

For this reason, Mantel couldn’t rely on the usual plot techniques to pull the reader along:  Will Anne survive Henry’s displeasure?  How high will Cromwell be able to go?  Will he outwit the conniving nobles who look down on him as a blacksmith’s son?

Instead, through the legerdemain of a highly skilled writer, Mantel has put the reader inside her character’s head, and his head alone.  The reader knows nothing of what anyone else is thinking.   All the reader — and Cromwell — knows is what is said and done by others.

Cromwell, who is highly skilled in his own ways, is able to find out a lot more of what is said and done by others than is apparent on the surface. Even so, he knows that there is much he does not know.

Knows what can happen

The Mirror and the Light opens with Cromwell and other members of Henry’s council witnessing the beheading of Anne Boleyn.  They walk away stunned, sober. 

After all, this was a woman they had dealt with for several years, a woman who, as Henry’s wife, had had a much more legitimate call on his affections than any of those councilors.  Yet, caught up in the power game and in whatever bedroom game it was that she engaged in, Anne had lost everything.

From this somber start, the rest of the novel unfolds as Cromwell is working day and night to help Henry make good decisions, to root out the king’s Catholic enemies, to guard against and blunt and, if necessary, execute Cromwell’s own enemies, to keep in the King’s good graces, to protect as much as he can those who like him have the politically dangerous desire for a simpler Protestantism than Henry’s high church version, to raise money for the King, to build up his own wealth, to shepherd his young aides in Henry’s service and to keep his head attached to his shoulders.

There is no foreshadowing of Cromwell’s end.  Or, better put, throughout all of his maneuvering, Cromwell knows what can happen, and he works constantly to keep all the various balls he is juggling in the air.  He can’t know when one ball might fall, but he does know that it could.  They all could.

Maybe, more honestly, he knows that it’s almost a certainty.

Even as Cromwell gains more and more power, it doesn’t bring him peace.  He, however, is not someone looking for peace.  He gets great pleasure from the exercise of his abilities, especially at such a high level, especially coming from such a low level.

The reader knows, as the page numbers get closer and closer to the end, that Cromwell will fall. 

Cromwell doesn’t know that, and he keeps dancing as fast as he’s able, keeps juggling as skillfully as he can, keeps trying to solve the myriad complex interconnected puzzles that someone has to solve. Keeps working to keep Henry’s regard, his love, his safety.

And then he falls. 

His body knows.

Patrick T. Reardon


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