The Mirror & The Light

One thing about self-isolating, you have plenty of time to read. Yesterday I finished The Mirror & The Light, the concluding volume of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy starring Thomas Cromwell. The first book, Wolf Hall, covered Cromwell’s rise to power, first as an aide to Cardinal Wolsey, then, surviving Wolsey’s fall, as a key adviser to Henry VIII. Wolf Hall concludes with Cromwell’s victory over Thomas More.

Cromwell was a protestant (although not, as he had to repeat often, a Lutheran) and he helped Henry to extricate himself from his first marriage to the Catholic Katherine of Aragon and to satisfy his desire to marry the protestant (and more nubile) Anne Boleyn. The politics of religion loomed large throughout the 16th Century. Bring Up the Bodies, the second book, is dominated by Henry’s stormy relationship with Anne and ends with her beheading, which Cromwell was instrumental in arranging.

The Mirror & The Light covers the apex of Cromwell’s career as Henry’s right-hand man and ends with his inevitable downfall. In the 16th Century, dynastic politics were mixed with Henry’s own proclivities, which were distorted, perhaps, by his declining powers. Cromwell’s role in arranging the ill-fated and brief marriage between Henry and Anne of Cleves led, proximately, to his demise, although Mantel suggests that Cromwell’s successes, more than his failures, caused Henry to resent his growing power.

Mantel is, in my opinion, a brilliant novelist. Her style is unique and takes a bit of getting used to. Everything is seen through Cromwell’s eyes. “He” means Cromwell. She renders dialogue beautifully, with Cromwell’s thoughts interspersed. Cromwell was a nobody, in Mantel’s telling the son of a crude, violent blacksmith and brewer who left home as a boy, learned his various trades in Italy, and became the second most powerful man in England. Cromwell was formidable in many ways; as a lawyer, a politician, and if need be, a brawler. Mantel’s portrait of him is compelling and entirely sympathetic. Her depiction of Henry is mostly positive, too, at least until the end. The burdens of kingship are clear: Cromwell says at one point that Anne Boleyn’s mistake was thinking that Henry was only a man. A sovereign is not just a man.

England in the 16th Century was a fascinating and colorful place that lives on in the popular imagination. Mantel’s books bring the era to life, to an extraordinary extent. I found them hugely enjoyable. The Mirror & The Light is long, weighing in at just over 800 pages. Some have criticized its length, but not me. Sure, it may reflect Mantel’s reluctance to let go of her hero, whom she clearly admires. But for me, anyway, the interest never flagged.

I like historical novels in general, and Mantel’s are among the very best–great works of fiction, in my opinion. And if you are alert, you may spot sly references to persons as diverse as Stendahl and Wittgenstein. Mantel’s Cromwell books have been much honored, and I think the honors are richly deserved.

A final note: I reviewed, if that is not too pretentious a term, Anthony Roberts’ Napoleon: A Life here. I was happy to see that Roberts took note of my post and tweeted a link to it:

Like a lot of tweets, I think it was done rapidly and the second “Napoleon” was intended to be Churchill.

In any event, I don’t expect to hear from Hilary Mantel. I doubt that she is on Twitter, and I am pretty sure she is not a Power Line reader. Nevertheless, if you haven’t checked out Wolf Hall and its successors, I encourage you to do so.