Film and Book Reviews

Rich Anglican history in final in Mantel trilogy

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

By Cathy Altmann

June 30 2020From the stunning opening line, “Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away”, to the drawn-out, achingly beautiful final moments of Thomas Cromwell’s life, this novel holds up a mirror to the past – and through it, to us all. 

The Mirror and the Light covers four years between 1536 and 1540. This final instalment in a trilogy which began with Wolf Hall (2009) takes us from Anne Boleyn’s execution, through Henry VIII’s wives three (Jane Seymour), four (Anne of Cleves) and five (the wedding to Katherine Howard). You can launch straight into this novel without reading the previous two, but there is also an excellent BBC miniseries Wolf Hall (2015) to whet your appetite.  

The Mirror and the Light may seem intimidating at 800+ pages, but it is hardly dry. There is constant drama. The death of two queens, treachery and the political machinations of Emperor Charles and the King of France form the backdrop. Heretics are burnt at the stake and it is a mercy to be beheaded. Leavening this is Hilary Mantel’s wry humour: “Shame and my lord Norfolk are not acquainted”; and “You know what the Howards believe in. Themselves”. 

Mantel’s complete imaginative immersion in the mind and world of Thomas Cromwell is a triumph. Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son from Putney, grows to become the most powerful man in England. He is 50 as the novel opens: “He carries in his head the statutes of England, the psalms and words of the Prophets, the columns of the king’s account books and the lineage, acreage and income of every person of substance in England’, but “his chief duty (it seems just now) is to get the king new wives and dispose of the old”. We come to know him intimately, the fragments which run through his mind, poems by Wyatt, rhymes from his days in Italy, memories of beatings and the way he is haunted by the burning he witnessed as a child. Mantel’s imagination probes what makes this child from Putney so different to all the others. 

1536-40 is an extraordinary period in the life of Henry, and one fraught with danger for those close to him. In Cromwell’s words, Henry is “the mirror and light of all other kings”. Yet Cromwell has no illusions. For “the king is like a shrike or butcher bird, who sings in imitation of a harmless seed-eater to lure his prey, then impales it on a thorn and digests it at his leisure”. Becoming close to the king is like befriending “a giant”. You need to be aware it is lonely, but never underestimate its ability to turn on you: “You cannot anticipate or grasp the king. Thomas More did not grasp this. This is why I am alive and he is dead,” reflects Cromwell. The recreation of Henry and Cromwell’s relationship is superb. Cromwell walks on a knife edge, too needed for his own good, too hated by his enemies to survive for long. We know it won’t end well, but the gripping tension of how and when it will all come apart drives the novel.  

Then there is the fascination of Henry himself. His six wives, too unbelievable for fiction. In four years he moves through three wives. Yet he is pious, he has qualms and doubts, and it is Cromwell’s job to deliver him from these. He wants to marry for love, but the state cannot allow that. When Anne of Cleves “flinches” at the first sight of him, all is lost, for Cromwell and for Anne.  

There is rich Anglican history here, relevant to anyone who reads the Bible in English, or their own mother tongue. Tyndale is burnt at the stake, but we have his New Testament. Mantel inhabits the past when the future was unknown. There are fierce debates about whether the body of Christ is literally present in the sacrament, whether priests may marry and whether women may teach: Henry himself takes the floor and puts his hand to his hat in reverence at the mention of the “body of Christ”. John Lambert burns for denying it. Cromwell grieves, but is powerless: “I believe what the king believes.” This is a time when “the Pope’s name is taken out of the service book, but parishes have simply glued strips of paper over it, thinking the world will turn and Rome rise again”. What Cromwell does, though, is turn “monks into money”. Monasteries are disbanded and their land given to the crown. There is the striking insight that “once lands are given out, no subject will want to give them back to the church. Prayers may be rewritten, but not leases. Hearts may revert to Rome, but the money never will”. In this way, Cromwell knows his work “is safe”, even after Henry dies. His eye is on “the prize: the English Bible. With this good book in your hands, God speaks to you as your father and mother spoke … in this close, this loving, this familiar tongue”. And in what God speaks lies a different vision, understood by Cromwell and captured with great poetic power by Mantel: “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 … she suffers the first pangs of labour on a night of cutting cold, under a sky pierced by white stars.”  

The negatives are few: progress at first was frustratingly slow, with constant reference to the table of characters at the start of the novel. Eventually I got used to the fact that “Norfolk” is also Thomas Howard, “Suffolk” is also Charles Brandon, and “Richmond” is Henry Fitzroy! The style, with the constant use of “he” to refer to Cromwell, takes some getting used to. Yet it allows Mantel to achieve both intimacy and a poignant distance. There are so many “events crowded into a week” that their connection to each other is not always clear, and it takes 400 pages to move out of 1536.  

When Cromwell’s end does come, it is shockingly sudden. He is made Earl in April and by June is “kicked out like a dog”. Everything we have witnessed comes together; every piece of the narrative and the fragmentary events combine like the end of a Shakespearean tragedy. Betrayal comes by the hand of some closest to him. The final moments of Cromwell’s life are unbearably moving. They had me in unexpected tears. I experienced, through Mantel’s great-hearted yet restrained writing, the universal truth of all our deaths, and the particular truth of this man’s death.  

Mantel holds up a mirror to us all, to human nature, whether in the guise of kings or commoners, and this is why the book matters. It’s why we read and why the past is preserved. Even if rats gnaw at the parchment on which Cromwell’s last plea for mercy is written, we pray that they may not “chew their way in, to the secret history of England”, so that writers of genius like Mantel can show us what we need to see.

Cathy Altmann is Deputy Head of English at Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne. She is the author of two books of poetry, Circumnavigation (2014) and things we know without naming (2018), both published by Poetica Christi Press. She worships at St Thomas’ Anglican Church, Burwood.