Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: The Mirror and The Light

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.

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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 Bodieswere 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.[1]

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).

[1] 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; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We DisappearedA Thousand ShipsHamnet; Actress; WeatherFleishman Is In Trouble; Red at the Boneand The Most Fun We Ever Had.

13 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: The Mirror and The Light

  1. Pingback: Winding Up the Week #125 – Book Jotter

  2. Superb review, you’ve reignited my interest in finishing this trilogy! I did find Wolf Hall taxing (I’ve spent very little time studying this chapter in history and had a lot of learning to do as I went) without as much payoff as I’d hoped for, but it’s very encouraging to hear that both sequels carry their weight. And that you’d be happy to see Mantel go far in the prizes with this one even after her previous recognitions!
    Looking forward to your ranked WP longlist. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wasn’t sure about the amount of prize recognition Mantel received for the first two books (Bring Up The Bodies is superb, but it didn’t seem quite fair to reward a book that leant so heavily on its predecessor) but The Mirror and The Light stands by itself and deserves all the prizes. I really hope juries don’t do that thing where they decide she’s had enough prizes and so the best of the three loses out! I think quite a few people struggle with Wolf Hall, so I’d definitely recommend reading on. Bodies, in particular, is much more tightly focused and much easier to read.

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      • Thanks for the heads up! It sounds like I can expect a better time with the rest of the series. 🙂

        I’m always a bit conflicted on multiple wins for the same author. On the one hand I feel that once someone has won once they don’t need the attention of another win from the same prize, although I do always hope that the work is being considered fairly, that the best book will win regardless of the author’s previous success. And it does bother me when an author’s win isn’t for their strongest work! (The Testaments receiving a Booker win where Handmaid’s Tale didn’t will always seem criminal to me, ha.) It would be very satisfying to see Mantel walk away with wins for every book of this series.

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        • I have no problem with the same author winning a prize multiple times, but my concern with Bring Up The Bodies was that I felt it depended so heavily on its predecessor, and so ended up with a ‘head start’ that the other books in contention didn’t have. I don’t think that sequels or series books should be automatically out of the running for prizes, but I think this has to be taken into account.

          Totally agree about The Handmaid’s Tale/The Testaments! I think the Booker judges thought they were making up for the previous omission, but they actually made it worse…

          Liked by 1 person

          • That makes sense! Dependence on another book does seem worth taking into account, and in that case I do agree that if The Mirror and The Light stands alone better that should also be taken into account, ie it should not be penalized for the success of the previous books in the series!

            Yes! From some of the judges’ comments it seemed like they wanted to acknowledge Atwood’s career more broadly, but giving a prize to The Testaments was not the right way to do that.

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  3. I had a different reading experience, I thought the payoff in Wolf Hall was there, and struggled a bit with The Mirror and the Light. A lot of that was due to a general reading slump though. I worry that I cheated myself off the true experience by pushing through, not waiting. But I came around in the end. I’d say page 750ish to the end was perfect. I miss him, Cromwell 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • I felt a bit bereft when I finished the book as well! I think some of my experience with Wolf Hall can be put down to the period of history it covers rather than any deficiency in Mantel’s writing. I’ve read a couple of fictional versions of Henry’s divorce negotiations and I just find them so protracted and tiresome, whereas the sequence of discrete events in The Mirror and the Light (the scare over Henry’s health and his bastard heir’s death; the Pilgrimage of Grace; Edward’s birth etc.) made it feel faster-moving for me. But it is a very long time since I read Wolf Hall.

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