The Wolf Hall trilogy and The Mirror & the Light, by Hilary Mantel
Reviewed by Mrs Walker
With millions of other eager Hilary Mantel fans, I seized my copy of The Mirror & the Light just before Covid-19 threw the country into lockdown. It sustained me for the first two and a half weeks in brilliant fashion. The Wolf Hall trilogy is a literary masterpiece and Mantel’s devoted readers will, like me, have revelled in all its many pages of historical drama, pageantry and intrigue. The three books tell of the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell; a fascinating character, a truly self-made man with remarkable talent who, under the patronage of the ill-fated Cardinal Wolsey, eventually comes under the eye of King Henry VIII.
Five hundred years of history fall away as Hilary Mantel brings the Tudor world to life, in all its deadly richness. This a world where everyone knows their place and you’re supposed to stay in it, all your precarious life. Thomas Cromwell’s amazing rise from the dregs of Putney, running away from home at the age of fourteen, escaping from his brutal father, Walter, a local brawler, blacksmith, and brewer of bad beer, to become King Henry’s right hand man, the person to whom the king entrusted all power and the reins of state, is utterly astonishing.
The only good thing that Thomas’s father did for him was pay for a priest to teach him to read and write. After that, Thomas Cromwell lived on his wits, his fists, and took every opportunity to advance himself; to learn politics and the arts of diplomacy from his beloved patron, Cardinal Wolsey, and to tread a highly dangerous road to fulfil his ambitions of becoming a safe, rich and powerful man. Cromwell had a phenomenal memory and regularly worked eighteen hour days. He was a man of solid build, who some thought “looked like a murderer”. He could intimidate, cajole and charm, and apparently, was a marvellous talker.
Mantel uses the third person to describe what Cromwell is thinking throughout the three novels. We have the privilege of being inside his head, as he makes his decisions. It’s an incredibly absorbing way to tell the story. In Wolf Hall, the first book, King Henry gives the best description of Cromwell, on page 631. This is when Henry wants Cromwell to sort out Thomas More, once and for all.
“Henry stirs into life. ‘Do I retain you for what is easy? Jesus pity my simplicity, I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of this realm’. He drops his voice. ‘Do you think it is for your personal beauty? The charm of your presence? I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents. But do not be a viper in my bosom. You know my decision. Execute it.’
By the time we get to the final book, The Mirror & the Light, nearly every bit of administration in the sea of state is ‘Cromwell business’. Cromwell is fifty years old, seemingly well-established and secure, but throughout his rise and rise, his powerful enemies have also been gathering their forces. Without the King’s favour, Cromwell is alone. He is not a courtier or a noble, he has no aristocratic heritage, or patron to protect him. His rise in fortune has always been bitterly resented by the Lords and Dukes of the Royal Court; he is considered an ill-bred upstart, but he is successful as Henry’s instrument, putting into effect his royal will, no matter how unpopular his actions. Ultimately, in this third book, the wheel of fortune turns against Cromwell. Henry is not prepared to forgive him for the disastrous union with Anne of Cleves, and for not managing to solve the problem of the dynastic rivals. At the absolute peak of Henry’s displeasure, Cromwell’s enemies spread rumours designed to reach Henry’s ear, intimating that Cromwell, as Regent, would seize power and become King if the opportunity arose. Perhaps Cromwell’s perceived power has become too great? These cumulative sins are unforgivable and lead to Cromwell’s sudden fall from grace.
It is certain that very soon after Cromwell’s execution, King Henry lived on to bitterly regret the loss of his irreplaceable councillor.
The title of this last volume seems to me to reflect the tides of fortune, the Thames river, the Tower of London, and the glitter of the royal court. The Mirror & the Light is the conclusion to a magnificent body of work; a beautifully written, totally engrossing, historically accurate portrait of the rise and fall of one of the most famous self-made men in history. There was only one possible course of action on coming to the end of this last book – an immediate re-read of Wolf Hall.
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