It feels like a very long time already since I wrote about this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, but I’m back with a review of the final title on the longlist, which has since advanced to the shortlist.
Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, following the career of one of the most significant advisors of Henry VIII’s reign, needs no introduction. The two previous books in the series, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, were intensely acclaimed, with prize juries pretty much flinging awards in their direction, and this final installment was so eagerly awaited that its publication was announced through a mysterious billboard in Leicester Square. Nevertheless, it’s taken me a little while to warm up to this series, which I read as it was released. Wolf Hall, in particular, which I’ve read one and a half times due to being unable to finish it the first time, felt like it required a level of investment from the reader that wasn’t entirely repaid. I found it difficult to understand how anyone could negotiate the intricacies of its plot without a detailed knowledge of Henrician politics (I have a history degree, and studied Tudor England and Stuart Britain as an undergraduate, but I didn’t focus closely on anything before Elizabeth I, and I admit, I struggled!) When I read Bring Up The Bodies, Mantel’s project made a lot more sense to me; this taut novel hits the ground running, building up the cast that was introduced in Wolf Hall and executing the Boleyns with vicious brilliance. And the strength and intelligence of Mantel’s prose, and of her historical insight, was never in doubt. But I was still concerned that it had taken Mantel six hundred and fifty pages to set up the dominos that she knocks down in the sequel, and the dependance of these two books on each other made it hard for me to truly adore Bring Up The Bodies.
The Mirror and The Light, however, is in a class of its own. Perhaps this sounds ridiculous given the huge success of the first two books, but for me, Mantel’s finally cracked it; she tells a very long and intricate story that doesn’t abandon any of the commitments she made in Wolf Hall or Bring Up The Bodies, which expects a lot from its reader and yet gives so much back. This book may be nine hundred pages long, but in many ways, it’s a lot more accessible than its predecessors. I don’t think you actually have to have read either of the previous Cromwell novels nor have a strong knowledge of Tudor history to be totally immersed in this wonderful novel. As long as you know that Cromwell rose from a humble background to become an advisor to Henry, that he was a big fan of previous advisor Cardinal Wolsey, that Cromwell was instrumental in the fall of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, and a supporter of Henry’s break with Rome and of reformed religion, you’d probably be fine. Mantel also references the previous novels frequently throughout her text; for example, Cromwell is haunted by the final days of George Boleyn despite his expressed disgust for his character, and relives them several times. While I don’t think this was her intention, it’s handy for the new reader or for readers (like myself) who read the other two novels long enough ago to have forgotten a lot.
This also points to one central concern of The Mirror and The Light: time and memory. There are a number of long, beautiful interludes in the novel where Cromwell explicitly reflects on the subject, and where the past and present collapse as he views England as a palimpsest:
Don’t look back, he had told the king: yet he too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades, in that hour in winter or summer before they bring in the candles… when the page grows dim and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations, so that as the page is turned the old story slides from sight… From the top of Wayneflete’s tower, the countryside beneath him was more imagined than real, stretching away in the darkness. It will soon be All Hallows, he thought. It seemed to him time had shuddered and slowed, as if the transit of heavenly bodies was retarded by the catastrophe that had overtaken his master and all England.
While I was reading this novel, I also read a co-authored article in the American Historical Review about the concept of ‘generation’ where the early modernist Alexandra Walsham argues that
the Protestant Reformation… profoundly reconfigured the relationship between the living and the dead: one consequence of its theology was to sever the inhabitants of these two realms from each other and to deny that there could be any kind of communication or interaction between them.
This statement haunted me while I inhabited the world of Thomas Cromwell, who was as fierce an advocate as any of removing customs such as indulgences. (Indulgences imagined that, for example, the wealthy could donate money to charitable works and reduce the amount of time deceased relatives had to spend in purgatory – and so their abolition suggested that the living could no longer give any help to the dead.) Nevertheless, Cromwell is haunted by the dead, including those, like George Boleyn, where he was at least partly responsible for their fall; the reference to All Hallows Eve in the quotation from the novel above refers to the idea that this was a day on which the veil between the worlds was especially thin.
The Mirror and the Light also expands upon the vision of early modern monarchy that was imagined in Bring Up The Bodies, where, in one especially memorable scene, Henry is believed to be dead in a jousting accident, and the court is shaken to its foundations. As I wrote in my review of Bring Up The Bodies, Mantel explores Henry’s kingship through ‘the vivid early modern metaphor of the king’s earthly body becoming parallel to the kingdom’s single body, united in law and loyalty to the monarch’ and, in The Mirror and the Light, because of Cromwell’s ever-increasing closeness to the monarch, we see more of the toll this takes on Henry. Mantel’s characterisation of Henry is superb: he’s both very smart and dangerously mercurial, unable to understand the impact that a chance statement can have on the politics of his court. But while not excusing his personal brutality, we also see the weight he carries, with the health of his ageing body directly identified with the health of the realm. As he says to Cromwell, ‘All my life, to be a prince… to unmake myself as a man in order to make myself a king… When I was a young man I suppose I showed the calf of my leg to an ambassador and said, “There, has your French king a calf as good as that?” And my words were reported, and all Europe laughed at me… But being young I asked myself, if God had formed Francois better than me, which prince did He favour most?’
It’s impossible to do such a novel justice in a single review (and this one is long enough!); it took me a month to read it and I still miss it now it’s over. I won’t be surprised if Mantel sweeps all the prizes again with this one, and she would deserve it, for this is her masterpiece.
My next Women’s Prize for Fiction post, on Monday, will be my ranking of all sixteen titles on the longlist, and an extremely surprising announcement of which book I’d like to win the prize this year (
Thomas Cromwell Rules OK).
 Abosede George, Clive Glaser, Margaret D. Jacobs, Chitra Joshi, Emily Marker, Alexandra Walsham, Wang Zheng, and Bernd Weisbrod, ‘AHR Conversation: Each Generation Writes Its Own History of Generations,’ American Historical Review 123, 5, December 2018, p.1522. [paywalled]
I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number sixteen. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; Queenie; Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We Disappeared; A Thousand Ships; Hamnet; Actress; Weather; Fleishman Is In Trouble; Red at the Bone; and The Most Fun We Ever Had.