Book Review: The Mirror and the Light

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The Mirror and the Light (Thomas Cromwell Trilogy #3)
by Hilary Mantel
Historical Fiction
784 pages
First published March 10, 2020 by Henry Holt & Company

“Every story is a ghost story,” Dame Hilary Mantel has said, and it’s never more true than it is in her twice-Booker Prize-winning trilogy devoted to the life of Thomas Cromwell. In the first two installments, Wolf Hall and The Mirror and the Light, a slew of characters died. Whether it was from illness or by execution, their ghosts linger on to mock or advise or to remind Cromwell in turn. The dead, it could be said, are as vital to the story as the living. The shade of Anne Boleyn, the queen that was, for example, affects Cromwell every bit as much as the living presence of Jane Seymour, the queen that is. It just goes to show that we can’t escape the past– especially the immediate past– and even minor actions and off-handed comments can come back to haunt us.

“His chief duty (it seems just now) is to get the king new wives and dispose of the old. His days are long and arduous, packed with laws to be drafted and ambassadors to beguile. He goes on working by candlelight through summer dusks, through winter sunsets when it is dark by half past three. Even his nights are not his to waste. Often he sleeps in a chamber near the king and Henry wakes him in the small hours and asks him questions about treasury receipts, or tells him his dreams and asks what they mean.”

Historical fiction, like any other genre, has its degrees. Some authors choose to go the route of melodrama, turning historical figures into scheming villainesses or virtuous but doomed heroines or bending the facts of history to suit their story. Others, like Mantel, use facts as a foundation, letting the story slip through the cracks of history and breathing a new kind of life into people long dead.

This doesn’t mean that the story reads as old and dry. By abandoning the ‘thees and thous’ of Early Modern English, Mantel gives her characters modern-seeming voices that give their conversations a sense of immediacy. The reader feels as though they are part of the conversation, that if the speakers would pause for a breath, they could jump in and put in their own opinions. This immediacy has led to some controversy for Mantel, who has voiced her criticisms of the Catholic church, and when combined with the deep, third-person perspective centered upon Cromwell himself, has led some to state that Mantel is anti-Catholic. Whatever her personal views– and she had many negative interactions with the nuns of the Catholic school she attended as a child which affected her life and viewpoint– the religious sentiment of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy is rooted in history. The saintly Thomas More is tarnished in this story, but then he and Thomas Cromwell were on different sides of a deep religious divide. More was profoundly religious and died for his Catholic beliefs. Cromwell was a reformer who didn’t believe in the authority of the Pope. If, instead, this had been the Thomas More trilogy, there would be a drastically different view of the Catholic church.

But we’re stuck with he, Cromwell, the blacksmith’s boy from Putney who ran away from home and went to the continent to find his fortune. He returned to England an educated and wealthy man, a former soldier, a veteran of the Florentine banks, cloth merchant, polyglot, and lawyer who– after making himself invaluable to Cardinal Wolsey, the second man in Henry VIII’s England– rose and rose in power until some wondered if it was Cromwell who truly ruled England, not Henry. Never before had a common man risen so high in England.

And that is the source of much of the conflict in The Mirror and the Light. The old nobility, who believe in the superiority of their ancient titles and family lines, hate Cromwell for being a common man with power. They will happily pull Cromwell down if he makes the slightest mistake. But Cromwell, like a slippery eel, manages to evade them for years.

Until he doesn’t.

It is, perhaps, the greatest irony of Cromwell’s life that a man with a reputation for cold-bloodedness falls because he is too merciful. He goes out of his way to aide young people who have displeased Henry, and though he is repeatedly given the opportunity to bring down a mortal enemy, he consistently declines to do so. As clever as Cromwell is, when an entire country is willing to unite against him, even a solid mass like him cannot stand against it for long.

At 785 pages, The Mirror and the Light requires a substantial investment of a reader’s time, but Mantel’s masterful writing, the deep, nearly stream of consciousness perspective of Thomas Cromwell, and the rapid-fire conversations between even minor players of that the theater that was the royal court of Henry VIII show that everyone had their parts to play, no matter how small. And in that theater, Thomas Cromwell had a profound role until he, too, had to make his exit, stage left.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Mirror and the Light

  1. Masterful review, Kim. It’s hard to review the final book in a trilogy — particularly one so well known and well-loved as Thomas Cromwell. But you did it justice! In particular, I love your reflection that the perspective of the Catholic Chruch would be much different if this were from More’s perspective. You’re not wrong! Perspective is everything. And that’s one reason I think this trilogy is so well-loved. Cromwell is a *fascinating* perspective.

    I will admit, this trilogy intrigues me. But it’s so hefty! I find large tomes of historical fiction, particularly those that are quite true to their source material, to be very intimidating. I don’t know why 1000 pages of dragons are okay but not English monarchs. I’m hoping your upcoming series on the Tudors will break some of the strange feelings I have about this.

  2. That’s something people tend to overlook when it comes to the potrayal of Thomas More in Mantel’s books– that it’s deeply into the perspective of Cromwell, who has reason to despise him.

    I don’t think you really need to be super familiar with the Tudor era to enjoy the trilogy. Mantel does a good job of introducing the people and outlining their relationships to each other. The audiobooks are brilliant, so if you have a chance to try Wolf Hall on audio, it’s an excellent way to get into these books.

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