abusive father, becomes a soldier, a cook, and, due to his undeniable talents, a banker. Returning to England, he enters the law and the service of Cardinal Wolsey, the Chancellor of England, and then the King’s, where he rises rapidly. Musing over his past, Cromwell thinks, “His sixth life was as Master Secretary, the King’s servant. His seventh, Lord Cromwell, now begins.” Unlike a cat, however, Cromwell will not be accorded nine lives. Rather, resembling a tragic figure, he will fall from on high. Hilary Mantel’s daunting task is to show how the inevitable happens while maintaining an unrelenting dramatic tension over 800 pages. And she succeeds.
Mantel comes from a Catholic working-class family in the north of England. This marginalized background may have both drawn her to Cromwell and helped her portray the ghosts of the past. She rose to become a Dame of the British Empire, and is the first author to have earned two Booker Prizes for the initial volumes of the Cromwell trilogy. We have the entire series in our library.
Mantel has written novels set in many locations, as well as a memoir, Give up the Ghost. But her real genius lies in historical fiction. What makes The Mirror and the Light so extraordinary? In my view, two inseparable elements: a charismatic character and a scintillating writing style that brings the past to life. The story is told in a dramatic present tense, as though events are unfolding before us; dialogues become rapier duels, at the end of which we are tempted to say “touché.”
The Mirror and the Light plunges us into the nest of vipers that is the court of Henry VIII between 1636 and 1640. The aging king is obese, in pain, nearly impotent, and dangerous. The nobles, though sparring with each other, are united in their disdain for Cromwell—an upstart nobody with only his wits to protect him. Having disposed of Anne Boleyn, Henry hopes for an heir from his third wife, Jane Seymour, to whom Cromwell had been attracted from afar. In addition, religious conflict continues to rage. Henry has required his subjects to sign a loyalty oath swearing allegiance to him as head of the English church. Some of the old nobility wish to return to Catholicism under the rule of his daughter Mary; and Cromwell himself is a “Bible man,” what we would call a Protestant.
What makes Thomas Cromwell so compelling a character? First, he is a complex, enigmatic man, a devout religious reformer who does terrible things. While he contrives Anne Boleyn’s fall and brings down others with her, he shows sympathy for Mary as well as for the humble people he takes into his household. Mantel’s writing also brings us close to him. Much of the novel takes place within his head through what could be called an “intimate third person”: Cromwell’s words and thoughts are simply introduced by he without name or quotation marks.
He feels tired. Seven years for the king to get Anne. Three weeks to bring her to trial. Three heartbeats to finish it. But still, they are his heartbeats as well as hers. The effort of them must be added to the rest.
Finally, Cromwell is sexy. His genius, his surprising moments of kindness, his physical and mental resilience contribute to a surprising attraction. Never 1666 Coffman News January 2021 Page 11 a good-looking man—even his own son says he looks like a “murderer”—he appeals to and understands women, even needing to reject their advances on occasion.
So what causes Cromwell’s fall? I will leave it to you, readers, to decide. (Indeed, it is not really a question of how he falls, but how he survives so long.) Yet without revealing too much, it’s “all about women,” as he says. Cromwell will become embroiled in a new search for a queen who may further the political interests of England. But royal marriage is not just an alliance; it is a union between two bodies. Like a master lion-tender, Cromwell becomes complacent with time, forgetting that the royal beast is untamable, driven by his own passions.
I’ve done my best to present this novel, but for true eloquence, read it!
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