THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT
By Hilary Mantel
Near the end of “Bring Up the Bodies,” the second novel in Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy, Anne Boleyn’s executioner picks up her head from the scaffold and “in a yard of linen he swaddles it, like a newborn.” Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s secretary, who orchestrated Boleyn’s demise, is left fearing that he may soon fall victim to his enemies’ manipulation of the king’s fluctuating affections. But Cromwell decides to dig in. “Let them try to pull him down,” Mantel writes. “They will find him armored, they will find him entrenched, they will find him stuck like a limpet to the future.”
“The Mirror and the Light,” the third and final book in a series that began with “Wolf Hall” in 2009, is another crowded Tudor panoply viewed entirely through the eyes of Cromwell, whose nature is as labyrinthine as the palace corridors he superintends. Festooned with new titles and heaped with new properties, he is a widower “too useful to be sad,” at least for long, and a compulsive seeker of advantage who will always “glance around a room to note the exits.” He is not one of those men who “can make a tidy parcel of their past.” Amid all the marital and theological calamities unleashed by the king, Cromwell is ever agitated by childhood memories of his brutal blacksmith father; his youthful days in Europe as a mercenary soldier and fixer; and his later service to Cardinal Wolsey, the all-powerful Lord Chancellor who was finally brought low by Henry. “My master Wolsey taught me, try everything,” Cromwell says. “Discard no possibility. Keep all channels open.” Past so inhabits present that Mantel includes the dead in the trilogy’s dramatis personae.
Henry’s court is a little world of terror, more Orwellian than antique for all of Mantel’s splendid period ornamentation. Fantastic rumors and royal whim generate its weather. Falls from grace are sudden and frequently fatal. On the throne for a quarter century by now, Henry is a very human Big Brother, not without shame but bathed in self-pity, and reaching new heights of grandiosity. Hans Holbein finds the king easy to paint because “his face shines with the wonder of himself.” Nonetheless, his body is turning gross and feeble. Cromwell keeps a secret Book of Henry, a kind of customized version of Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” in which he can devise strategies for coping with his monarch’s vanities and moods.
Threats to Henry’s reign come from within the royal enclosures as well as from afar. Reginald Pole — a descendant of the once-ruling Plantagenets, who regard the Tudors as arrivistes — now spreads heresy and treason on the Continent. The French king wants to wrest Calais from the English, even if he has to ally with the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, to do it. And a tax rebellion has begun in the northern reaches of the realm. Still, nothing can long distract Henry from the altar. Jane Seymour, his third wife, as pliant as Anne Boleyn was petulant, at last produces the male heir that Anne, and Katherine of Aragon before her, did not. But the effort kills her, and Henry is urged to father a backup male via a fourth wife.
Even with his overstuffed portfolio, Cromwell makes time, and room in his household, for a procession of “roaring boys” — “runaway apprentices, roisterers, ruffians” — in whom he sees the combination of hard knocks and gumption that led to his own rise in the world. There is a tenderness in him that extends even to those he must ruin or kill or threaten with torture. Some of this novel’s best moments have him sparring with Mary, Henry’s Catholic daughter with Katherine, pressing her to swear obedience to her father rather than risk being used by those seeking to undo Henry’s self-interested English Reformation.
The king’s marriages must always be on Cromwell’s mind. A union with Anne of Cleves now makes political sense: Henry needs the support of German rulers like her brother against the emperor and French king. Theologically, it’s tricky; the Germans want further reformation from Henry, who may enjoy breaking up England’s monasteries but seems comfortable enough, doctrinally, with Rome. Erotically, the marriage is doomed. Anne of Cleves — more timid here than the indelibly shrewd version that Elsa Lanchester played in the movies — makes the mistake of letting Henry see her flinch at the first sight of him.
For all its political and literary plotting, “The Mirror and the Light” is most memorable for its portraiture, with Cromwell acting as our Holbein, challenging us to weigh his interpretive assessments against our enormous accumulated knowledge of his concerns, biases and kinks. One mainstay of the trilogy, and of Cromwell’s attentions, is Eustache Chapuys, the emperor’s ambassador to London who was Katherine’s great champion during the first marriage crisis. The source of comically accented mispronunciations (“Cremuel,” “Norferk,” even “Guiett” for “Wyatt”), Chapuys is also, like Cromwell, an accomplished functionary. The two can almost, amid their professional joustings and subterfuges, let down their hair with each other.
If Cromwell and Chapuys prefigure modern meritocratic society, then Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, represents the ethos of “ancient blood” and landedness. Like the Pole family, he regards Henry, in mostly prudent silence, as an upstart — and sees Cromwell as some foul thing bubbled up from a drain. The two of them cannot refrain from verbal and even physical assaults upon each other. “I think you like being low-born,” the duke tells Cromwell. “I think you’re boasting of it.” When pondering their standoff, Cromwell elects to play a long game. “If the duke is an impregnable fortress,” then Cromwell “is a siege engine.”
It is impossible not to admit that this final volume, nearly twice the length of the more kinetic “Bring Up the Bodies,” becomes woefully labored. Thomas Cromwell is a marvelous prism and a phenomenally round character, but by the time we’ve had 1,700 pages of him, he is drastically overdetermined. Some of the repetition may stem from a desire to give each volume in the trilogy a degree of autonomy, but in this latest book one senses Mantel’s simply excessive zeal in sculpting the protagonist. There’s the frequent puffing of his fascinating nature — even Henry says: “I don’t know what makes you as you are. God’s mystery, I suppose” — and a thick layering of his memories, flashback upon flashback to the forge and to Italy and to his going about Wolsey’s business. The effect is more oppressive than illuminating. When Lady Mary says to him, “I cannot imagine you as a child,” he thinks: “Neither can I. I cannot picture myself.” But by this time it may seem to the reader that Cromwell does little else.
The “Wolf Hall” trilogy is probably the greatest historical fiction accomplishment of the past decade; the first two volumes both won Man Booker Prizes. But after “Bring Up the Bodies,” the enterprise, like Henry, has put on weight and self-importance. The final book feels heavier with food and custom and ceremony; catalogs of saints’ relics, clothing and wedding presents; an epic paragraph about plums. Mantel’s brilliance is never far from being in evidence, as in this line about gargoyles: “Outside the rain runs down the windows: Lead men on rooftops spout it from their maws.” And yet, the sentence is deployed, like dozens of others, to impart a portentous tone just before a section break, as if we need regular reminding that the story, like Cromwell’s knotty nature, really should compel us. Long since convinced of that, we would rather be left alone to delight in all the animated, independent particulars, such as the obsessive removal of HA-HAs, architectural ornaments that entwine Henry’s and Anne Boleyn’s initials. When Mantel stages a “fiesta of pain,” she never stints. Along with heads and bodies, one finds “on the execution ground, shaken adherent flesh from chains.” When the method is burning instead of the ax, “the friar raises his arms, which have been left free, as if he is clawing towards Heaven.”
At its end, “The Mirror and the Light” recovers a brutal momentum from Cromwell’s fall. (Historical fiction doesn’t really require spoiler alerts, but if you’re rusty in the Tudor period, you may want to skip these last paragraphs.) After the vast and painstaking narrative that has preceded them, the book’s final 75 pages may actually feel rushed, but the speed is artistically appropriate to the abruptness of the matter. Just after Cromwell has been made Earl of Essex, the ground gives way beneath his feet. He has always known that Henry “uses people up,” and his own expiration date has now arrived, as if he were one of the king’s wives. He is held responsible for the Anne of Cleves fiasco and the failure to kill Reginald Pole, along with a host of new threats to the kingdom, including possible invasion by the French king and the emperor. Right now “the king rains and shines like April. Men change their religion as they change their coats. … We are playing chess in the dark.”
But there is enough light for his old enemies, including Norfolk, to spot an opening for themselves. The ensuing interrogations are brisk, Cromwell’s replies sarcastically superb. He has been manhandled, stripped of his badge, chain, papers and properties, and the process “has been organized so neatly you would think he had done it himself.” The king’s secretary can now be blamed openly, not just for the realm’s insecurity but for having had the presumption to wear an overly regal “doublet of purple satin.” He retains the loyalty of his servant Christophe, the roaringest of the roaring boys, along with the devotion of his tenderhearted clerk, Rafe Sadler. But he is condemned to the Tower, to read Erasmus’s “Preparation Unto Death” and be visited by the ghosts of Wolsey and Thomas More. Any hope of Henry’s mercy will prove no more fruitful than Anne Boleyn’s hope for the same. The king has two marriages to go, but this is the end of Henry’s story as well: After what Mantel has achieved, the reader will likely refuse to see that tale through any eyes but Thomas Cromwell’s.
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