Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light (Fourth Estate 2020)

Now we live in an age of coercion, where the king’s will is an instrument reshaped each morning, as if by a master-forger: sharp-pointed. biting, it spirals deep into our crooked age.

(Page 65)

This is the third novel in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy: my blog posts of the first two are here and here. When the first novel was published in 2009, the idea of Donald Trump as President of the USA was a barely-remembered joke from Back to the Future II (1989). Yet now that we’ve reached the third volume her portrait of Henry VIII as a flashy, erratic, concupiscent, self-serving despot has taken on sharp contemporary relevance. Henry had more wives than Donald. and treated them a lot worse, but on the other hand he believed in God and his sense of his own importance, for good or ill, was bound up with that belief.

How we could wish for a principled, pragmatic and effective Thomas Cromwell in the White House of our own crooked age!

Somewhere – or Nowhere, perhaps – there is a society ruled by philosophers. They have clean hands and pure hearts. But even in the metropolis of light there are middens and manure-heaps, swarming with flies. Even in the republic of virtue you need a man who will shovel up the shit, and somewhere it is written that Cromwell is his name.

(Page 435)

Ten years ago I thought of Thomas More as a saint, a model of integrity and courage, and Cromwell as corrupt, venal and murderous wielder of power. Now I think of the former as a vicious, misogynistic ideologue, and Cromwell as a basically decent man who, though not above murderous vengefulness, wasn’t afraid to get shit on his shoes or dirt on his hands in order to preserve social order and peace.

What to say about this huge (882 pages) book?

It’s beautifully written: someone told me his partner was reading a couple of pages of it to him each night, and I can see what a joy that would be.

It’s meticulously researched: it’s five decades since I studied Reformation History, so I’m no judge on its accuracy, but every time I checked a detail it turned out to be there in the record.

It’s spellbinding: even though you know in advance – or could do – that the main character is executed at the order of the king he serves and whose favour he enjoys, that conclusion seems both impossible and inevitable as events move inexorably towards it.

Though the resonances with Donald Trump’s presidency are strong, the book isn’t a thinly- or even thickly-veiled analogy for our times. One feels at every moment that Hilary Mantel has steeped her imagination in the England of the late 1530s. The food, the clothes, the specifics of patriarchy, the religious complexities, the lurking presence of the plague: all come startlingly alive. The bewildering array of characters that my generation of Australians learnt about in school – Henry VIII and his six wives, Thomas More, Cromwell himself, the bishops Cranmer, Pole and Latimer – are here as scheming and schemed against, sweet-talking, threatening, manoeuvring and grasping for survival, and in the middle of it all somewhere grappling with matters of principle.

I learned about the English Reformation from a Catholic perspective, and my childhood contempt for a clergy who modified their doctrines to suit the whims of a lusty king wasn’t changed much by my university studies. But this book, while it leaves me with even less respect for Henry, has given me a profound respect and admiration for the champions of the gospel around him.

In one reading, patriarchy remains intact and unchallenged in this book. There is no hint that both of Henry’s daughters would one day rule England – though women, including Mary, cold cause terrible trouble by marrying against the king’s wishes. Women are seen largely as pawns in the dangerous game of royal succession: will this one please the ageing king enough for him to ‘do the deed’, will she get pregnant, will the child be a boy, will the boy survive childhood? But there are hints that elsewhere women can have different kinds of power. Some women inspire the heretics and papists who rise up against Henry. Thomas’s witnessing a Lollard woman burned at the stake is one of the formative horrors of his childhood. And in the short chapter in which Jane Seymour gives birth to a son the narration moves away from Thomas’s point of view, and we are taken for a moment into a whole different world. Here not only do women have significant agency, but also the lore and wisdom inextricably bound up with the old Catholic religion comes into its own. Our sympathies are thoroughly with Cromwell the protestant, but Mantel’s imagination transcends anything like one-sided advocacy. A short quotation may help show what I mean:

When Mary gave birth to her Saviour and ours, did she suffer as other mothers do? The divines have sundry opinions, but women think she did. They think she shared their queasy, trembling hours, even though she was a virgin when she conceived, a virgin when she carried: even a virgin when redemption burst out of her, in an unholy gush of fluids. Afterwards, Mary was sealed up again, caulked tight against man’s incursions. And yet she became the fountain from which the whole world drinks. She protects against plague, and teaches the hard-hearted how to feel, the dry-eyed to drop a tear. She pities the sailor tossed on the salt wave, and saves even thieves and fornicators from punishment. She comes to us when we have only an hour to live, to warn us to say our prayers.
But all over England virgins are crumbling. Our Lady of Ipswich must go down. Our Lady of Walsingham, which we call Falsingham, must be taken away in a cart. Our Lady of Worcester is stripped of her coat and her silver shoes. The vessels containing her breast-milk are smashed, and found to contain chalk. And where her eyes move, and weep tears of blood, we know now that the blood is animal blood and her eyes are worked on wires.

From behind the papist virgin with her silver shoes there creeps another woman, poor, her feet bare and calloused, her swarthy face plastered with the dust of the road. Her belly is heavy with salvation and the weight drags and makes her back ache. When night comes she draws warmth not from ermine or sable but from the hide and hair of farm animals, as she squats among them in the straw; she suffers the first pangs of labour on a night of cutting cold, under a sky pierced by white stars.

(page 508, 510)

I finished this book with a sense of having witnessed a miracle.

Oh one last thing: earlier in the trilogy, Hilary Mantel got stuck into Thomas More and made Robert Bolt’s Man for all Seasons into a villain for our times, in this book Thomas Becket, the martyr hero of T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral gets a similarly persuasive demotion. Is nothing sacred? I cry. To which Hilary Mantel apparently responds in the negative.

8 responses to “Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light

  1. Let me echo all your understanding – merely replacing your youthful Catholic understanding with my equally ideological (can I use that word here) fundamentalist Protestant narrowness – and or understanding – we must have studied the same history – were you in History I (E) in 1966. I have not got far into this third in the trilogy – but I wrote to Hilary in 2009/2010 with my thinking on Thomas Cromwell from Wolf Hall as a figure for whom I had much respect…and she wrote back a scribbled two page reply – I had indeed – as have you Jonathan, here – understood her hope – to properly see Cromwell! Excellent writing. Oh, and how good was Mark Rylance in the TV series! I have just this week finally read Brian James (aka real name John Tierney) The Advancement of Spencer Button (A&R 1950) – the classic novel of teacher life – looking to the list/the promotion/the country service etc – human character in staff-rooms etc in classrooms laid bare! Brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, Jim: I was one year behind you – 1967, with Maida Coaldrake as my tutor. It doesn’t surprise me that Hilary Mantel wrote back to you, but what amazing generosity! Maybe you got in early before the book(s) became such a thing. I agree about Mark Rylance, but I don’t want to see a TV version of this one: leave me with my own mental images, please.

      Like

  2. I did so enjoy reading this, and what a perfect quotation!
    I remember getting into trouble at school because I wrote an essay that went against the Catholic line on Thomas More. I am so glad that Mantel has, with a word of ideology, reversed that thinking for a whole generation of readers:)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. kathyprokhovnik

    I loved this book! What an achievement! A great review Jonathan.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. residentjudge

    I just finished it last night. Terrific review, Jonathan.

    Liked by 1 person

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