Hilary Mantel’s trilogy—Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and now The Mirror and the Light—concerns the rule of Henry VIII, but the protagonist of all three books is his adviser, Thomas Cromwell. The first two books are now rightly famous, garlanded with a Booker each. They have become bywords for a style of writing the past that builds from one man’s psychology outward.
In Wolf Hall, Cromwell rises through the court and survives the downfall of his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, to become Henry VIII’s confidant. He helps him discard his first wife, Katherine, and place on the throne Anne Boleyn. Bring Up the Bodies follows the course of a single year, as Boleyn loses the king’s favor and then her head: “a sharp silence, and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole: the body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.”
The Mirror and the Light picks up after that execution, to give us the twilight of Cromwell’s life and career, as he irrevocably—this is history, after all—walks into disaster. But although history is Mantel’s guide, linear time is not the organizing principle of her work. There, we inhabit Cromwell’s polyphonic internal monologue, roving across memory and possibility, patched and various like a text sutured together from little pieces of torn-up stories.
Paper is Cromwell’s medium. A genius who rose from obscurity to the highest possible rank at court, his life’s project, as Mantel writes it, was essentially to construct a parallel England, one not reliant on swords and rivalries but the automaton of bureaucracy. As the architect of the Reformation—the dissolution of Britain’s monasteries and the country’s break from Rome—he is celebrated today for precisely this innovation in the systems of government. Cromwell was obsessed with state process, from administration to law court to parliamentary procedure.
It is also an abstract way of looking at the world. In Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel folds that abstraction into Cromwell’s emotional character. As his riches and stature grow, Cromwell starts “buying land in the lusher parts of England, but he has no leisure to visit it.” He owns a Shakespearean vision of old Albion, “these farms, these ancient manors in their walled gardens, these watercourses with their little quays, these ponds with their gilded fish rising to the hook; these vineyards, flower gardens, arbors and walks.” Since he is too busy to see them, they must remain to him “flat, each one a paper construct, a set of figures on a page of accounts.… His acres are notional acres, sources of income, sources of dissatisfaction in the small hours, when he wakes up and his mind explores their geography.”
This alternative England made of text is ruled by Cromwell, not Henry—Henry can only think in terms of heirs and battlefields. Throughout the shocking events of his career, Cromwell uses England’s new bureaucratic apparatus to engineer murder at a distance, provoking inquiries into traitors and rebels who sometimes are only guilty of needing to get out of his way. As he thinks to himself while interrogating the ill-fated courtier Sir Henry Norris, “He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”
The England of Cromwell’s imagination becomes many things. It is an engine of progress, to the mind of an Englishman proud of the Tudors’ legacy. It is an allegory of the nation itself, with its center occupied not by a monarch but by systems. Trade, laws, diplomacy: all kinds of power that happen on paper, on deeds and treaties. It is also, crucially, a tool of Cromwell’s conscience, which he uses to keep his actions at a comfortable remove from his own soul. They’re not crimes, to him—just functions of a system that end with heads rolling across their own puddles of gore.
The Mirror and the Light is longer and more ponderous than its predecessors. At 784 pages, it doesn’t have the taut energy of the first two books, but then neither does an old man have the taut energy of his youth. In Wolf Hall, there were long passages of contemplation and memory, but here they swell and almost edge out the events at court, even though those events have turned lewder and more violent: more deaths, more blood, more sex.
There are moments when it is difficult to tell whether Mantel is reflecting the vaguer state of her hero’s mind, or simply writing baggily. For example, she uses the adjective “jaundiced” six times in The Mirror and the Light. Is this because cynical old men are more jaundiced, or because ploughing through the same material over and over again has caused the sixteenth century to close over Mantel’s head, blocking out the light and causing her to reach for tools closest to hand?
On the whole, I think the former is right: Cromwell missteps in The Mirror and the Light, ultimately losing his head himself. Mantel has to set him up to get lost in that paper jungle of his own design. One night, we see Cromwell dream. “History inks the skin,” his dreaming mind says, “it writes on the hide of sheep long slaughtered, or calves who never breathed; the dead cut away the ground beneath us.” Mantel has told critics that her books are ghost stories, and those ghosts crowd around her protagonist as time goes on, messing with his neat filing systems and diplomatic tricks. In his dream, he descends the stairs at his home, but “the tread falls away under his foot,” and below him the stairs now lead to “the city where the legions of Rome left their ashes beneath the earth, their glass in the soil, their bones in the river.”
The dream plunges down, “into the subsoil of himself, through France and Italy,” where he lived as a young man, “through the lowlands and the quicksands, by the marshes and meadows estuarine, through the floodplains of his dreams to where he wakes, shocked into a new day.” His mind is the unlucky place where the ink and earth mix. Cromwell loses control. Dazzled by his own reflected glory, he turns out to be as mortal as any other courtier.
Although any fan of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies will miss the presence of Anne Boleyn, the flashing-eyed femme fatale of those novels, The Mirror and the Light ends with such a beautiful scene—such a gorgeous death—that the final page of this trilogy closes on a note of satisfaction.
As Cromwell spends his last moments on earth, he has a vision of his friend Thomas Wyatt. He intertwines his final prayer with lines from one of Wyatt’s poems.
I am as I am and so will I be
But how that I am, none knoweth truly
Be it evil, be it well, be I bound, be I free,
I am as I am and so will I be . . . . . .
But how that is I leave to you.
Judge as ye list, false or true
Ye know no more than afore ye knew
Yet I am as I am, whatever ensue.
After these plangent lines about the unknowable nature of other people’s identities—a problem that we could argue is the premise for fiction—there is a moment of “raw stinging, a ripping, a throb.” The paper reign of a king among modern fiction protagonists is done.