The final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy finds her writing with more lyricism and force than ever before, and cements her prestige as one of the greatest writers living.
Hilary Mantel has complained, vocally and often, about Hans Holbein’s misleading portrait of Thomas Cromwell. Eyes narrowed, lips pursed, Holbein’s version of Henry VIII’s right- hand man is an insensate thug, not the kind of person you’d greet with a smile in a dim-lit alley, nor sympathise with as he makes his sorry way to the scaffold. Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, then, might be thought of as a kind of counter-portrait, an attempt to read against the historical grain – to recognise the self-made man, the intellectual, the polyglot, the father, the master and the loyal servant behind the picture that Holbein hands us. With the release of The Mirror and the Light, Mantel has accomplished something that is rarely done. She has persuasively imagined herself into the shoes of a man who lived almost five-hundred years ago: she has made her readers feel that she knows him and, by the end, that they might know him too.
Mantel’s books are the apotheosis of what a novel can be: loud, lavish worlds, brimming with sensory detail in a narrative that spins out into space as well as time. In them, Cromwell’s polymath intellect is the medium through which Tudor England glitters into view like sunlight through stained glass, from its most particular details to its grandest ambitions: from the warp and the weft of an Antwerp carpet, to the quality of the weave that holds a country together. Wolf Hall, the first breathless immersion into Mantel’s Tudor world, sets the tone, and charts Cromwell’s ascent into the king’s favour and the rise of Anne Boleyn. Bring Up The Bodies, a political thriller taut as the skin of a drum, describes her fall, and Cromwell’s further rise. The Mirror and the Light is the longest and slowest of the three, and sees him rise further still, until suddenly – ineluctably – he plummets, and is undone.
If this latest book is her finest yet, then it’s in large part because it builds so grandly on what has already been. Mantel layers her portrait of Cromwell so densely that you feel she is better acquainted with her fictional man than the real one was with himself – better, perhaps, than many real people are with themselves. Memories, myths, fantasies and visions intrude upon the central thrust of the narrative, configuring and reconfiguring themselves in breathtaking counterpoint. By the final pages, she has built up a web of mental associations so tight-knit that, in a few achingly poignant paragraphs, she is able to summon up feelings and experiences capacious enough to encapsulate an entire life. It is, as Mantel is keen to acknowledge, a self-contained book: but read it with the first two fresh in the mind, and the sheer scope of that final, brief chapter is overwhelming.
Tudor politics were often violent and shockingly unjust, and even under Mantel’s sympathetic eye, Cromwell cannot be exculpated from all crimes. But despite his sometime brutality, it’s impossible not to feel close to Mantel’s figure: the genius from nowhere who became the second-most powerful man in all England, with his enterprising eye and his unforced skill, his easy wit and his surprising generosity. Henry VIII, too, is masterfully depicted, swaying from scene to scene between forlorn and frightening. Henry was a human man who nevertheless conducted himself with the kind of volatile caprice usually reserved for the Old Testament God, and this is a tension that Mantel navigates with absolute command. The many other characters – most of them lost to popular imagination, but marvellously reanimated here – are handled in similarly deft style. Anne Boleyn, in particular, stands out; her loss is felt in the last instalment, but that can hardly be helped.
All three books balance a pacy and quick-witted story with an unwavering reverence for the contemplative and slow. They are sometimes very funny, and occasionally quite strange. They are always, always stunningly written. The prose is lyrical and yet utterly lucid; somehow, she captures the force and cadence of Tudor speech in a way that feels authentically archaic without becoming twee, and the extrovert rhetoric of the age only enhances Mantel’s already astonishing gift for pith and clarity. Her unmatched eye for detail shows most prodigally in quieter moments: scenes set on hushed evenings, in gardens abundant with flowers and fruit, or on crisp mornings surveyed from atop the saddle of a horse. The Mirror and the Light contains a lovely description of the variegated textures of plums, and such interludes abound throughout the trilogy, moments of tranquil equipoise that tip effortlessly towards transcendence. The first two books won Mantel the Man Booker Prize, twice. No-one writes like her, not as engrossingly and, it might seriously be suggested, not as well.
In the first book, Mantel describes Holbein’s attempt to paint her leading man. Appraising the finished portrait, the real Cromwell – her Cromwell – is unimpressed: “I look like a murderer.” Next to Holbein’s image, that stern and unyielding figure whose face gives nothing away, Mantel’s Cromwell is a far more compelling proposition: a flesh-and-blood man, worldly, talented and compromised, striving to remain upright in a place and time that teeters constantly on the edge of crisis. Her trilogy is a triumph. Read it!