The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Last fall, the Guardian embarked on a gargantuan project to catalogue the best culture produced in the twenty-first century so far. Categories ranged far and wide—architecture, dance, art exhibits—but of course they also included big ticket items like film, TV, and books. It's in the nature of such list-making that one always finds a great deal to disagree with and be surprised by, but of one thing I was absolutely sure. Long before the relevant list was published, I had no doubt that the title of best book of the twenty-first century would go to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I even found myself wondering whether the project's twenty-year span—as opposed to all the best-of-the-decade lists that were cropping up at the same time—was decided on purely because Wolf Hall, published in 2009, would not otherwise have been eligible.

I felt this certainty not because Wolf Hall is such a good book (though it is), but because it—and its sequel, 2012's Bring Up the Bodies, and now the concluding volume in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light—check so many boxes. They are cerebral, but also popular. Award-winners, but also runaway bestsellers. Literary, but also full of event. Deeply humanist, but also concerned with the doings of kings and princes. Historical, but also timeless. Fundamentally about England, but in ways that could appeal to people of almost any political stripe. They have been adapted into both a TV series and a play. The announcement, last year, of The Mirror and the Light's publication was greeted with the kind of fanfare that used to accompany a new Harry Potter novel, but also with predictions of a third Booker win. They have a breadth and wealth of incident one associates with fantasy doorstoppers of the Game of Thrones variety—one dramatic, violent event following closely after the one before. But they are also highbrow, peopled with endless ranks of similarly-named historical figures, whom one must constantly look up in the Dramatis Personae and on wikipedia in order to keep track of their history, family connections, and feuds, like a higher-stakes version of the Neapolitan Quartet. There's something here for everyone, without having to settle for the lowest common denominator. No wonder they've become so celebrated.

And yet at the same time, I've always found the success of Mantel's Cromwell trilogy a little baffling. They're good, yes, but why are they beloved? There's something so chilly about these books, something that defies our common understanding of what attracts an audience. The entire series is told in a tight third person on a man who claims to be an open book, and yet keeps secrets from everyone—-most importantly, his readers. A man who lets us into his inner thoughts, his past, and most of all his dreams for the future, only at the last possible minute. A man who lies to himself about what he wants, what he feels, and what he has become, even as he claims to be the picture of modern self-reflection. A man whose doom is obvious, not only because we know the facts of history, but because his project is so plainly self-defeating—to wring power and influence out of a ruler so narcissistic and self-absorbed, it is inevitable that he will come to resent and fear the councillor he had once praised and elevated. It's fascinating, of course, and extremely well-done. But there doesn't seem to be much there to love.

Thinking about this seeming contradiction, I've come to the conclusion that the best way to consider the Cromwell books is not through the lens of literature. Rather, they seem to me like a quintessential example of that beloved 00s cultural staple, the prestige anti-hero TV drama. Like Don Draper, Thomas Cromwell is a guttersnipe who has laboriously clambered his way into the upper reaches of society, the chip on his shoulder only barely concealed by expensive clothes and meticulously-acquired good manners. Like Walter White, he triumphs over more powerful, better-positioned adversaries through a combination of brains, natural ability, and sheer bloody-minded determination. Like Jimmy McGill, he sees himself as a champion of the little people, striking on their behalf at a calcified, self-satisfied establishment, even as the rewards of those triumphs end up going mostly to him. Like Tony Soprano, he moves through a system in which violence is always on the verge of bubbling up from under the surface, held at bay only by heavily-codified rituals, strictly-maintained norms of politeness and courtesy, and a hierarchy that is unassailable—until the moment that it isn't. Like Gus Fring, he recognizes and promotes talent in his underlings, who are fanatically devoted to him without ever really understanding him, or his ultimate goals. Like Lord Varys, he schemes and manipulates on behalf of one ruler or another in the hopes of achieving the sort of reign, the sort of society, that might be called benevolent and just—even as such an outcome seems less and less likely. And like every character on Game of Thrones, he keeps climbing well past the point of safety because he has no alternative, because to stop would be the same as surrendering.

If you place Cromwell among the ranks of these characters, it's easier to understand why Mantel has written him the way she has—open to us, and yet opaque, familiar in a way that feels almost anachronistic, and yet impossible to fully understand. This is how all of these characters have been written. We get to see them at their most private, most vulnerable moments, but we don't get to understand them, because they are too secret and too conniving to speak plainly and explain themselves. The pleasure of following along with their story is derived from the challenge of working them out, piecing together their lies and contradictions in order to come up with an image of one fascinatingly complex man. Like them, Cromwell is never entirely one thing. He is kind, but also cruel; smart, but also blind; self-effacing, but also vain. And he never tells us what he really wants, how he truly feels about the defining figures and events of his life. That tight third person narrative voice that creates the illusion of intimacy even as it conceals the character's deepest desires, which has been praised as a triumph of modernist, humanist writing, upending so many of the convention of historical fiction, feels more like a case of placing the series in an incorrect context. Why, for example, isn't it more of a problem that the Cromwell books don't end so much as stop? Because they are less books than seasons of a TV series, and having reached a climax—the death of Katherine of Aragon, the judicial murder of Anne Boleyn and her supposed lovers—they pause their story, to give us time to process it and reflect.

Once you correct that miscategorization, it's easier to comprehend the challenges Mantel faced in writing the final part of her story. When I finished Bring Up the Bodies, I rather peevishly concluded that Mantel had stopped her story before its final act because she liked and admired her protagonist too much to admit that all his scheming was only setting him up for a sticky end. Now I realize that she was facing a much thornier problem, one of craft and storytelling. Endings are a famously tricky issue for anti-hero stories. People assume that this is because writers don't know whether to give their morally compromised protagonists a happy or sad ending, whether to end on a note of triumph or comeuppance. But really, it's because the audience knows that these two things are one and the same. Tony Soprano may or may not have died the moment the screen smashed to black at the end of The Sopranos, but sooner or later, it will be his time. Don Draper may have achieved a moment of inner peace at the end of Mad Men, but the series's final image assures us that he will inevitably turn that enlightenment into a means of selling sugar water. The end of an anti-hero story comes well before the end. It's at the point where our protagonist finally becomes the person he was always trying—usually without admitting it—to be. Everything after that is just filling in the blanks. It's why the later seasons of Breaking Bad, or the current seasons of Better Call Saul, feel as if a lot of air has been let out of them. It's interesting to see how, exactly, the characters arrive where we have for some time known they'd end up, but there is no more scope for surprise, for revelation.

This is the challenge Mantel faced when sitting down to write The Mirror and the Light. Around the middle of the book, for example, Cromwell starts to panic—in his understated sort of way—about his predicament. Jane Seymour, the bride he procured for Henry VIII at great effort and cost to his soul, is dead. Her son is an infant. Henry's adult son, the bastard Henry Fitzroy, has died of an illness. The only other heirs are Mary and Elizabeth, both girls, made bastards by the most recent act of succession, the older of whom reviles Cromwell as a heretic and the architect of her mother's downfall. And Henry himself is in poor health. If he should die, Cromwell thinks, "I still have no plan, I have no route out. I have no affinity, I have no backers. I have no troops, no right, no claim." He urges the king—in his own mind, never speaking the potentially traitorous words out loud—to name him regent over the infant Edward. But a moment's thought would reveal that this sort of plan is hardly better than no plan—Cromwell the regent could be gotten rid of as easily as Cromwell the former king's advisor and secretary, because with Henry gone, he has no power of his own.

Ah, I thought to myself. He is just like the wives. Like them, his power derives only from Henry, from pleasing him and giving him what he wants. With Henry gone—or with his favor gone—his own power disappears as if it never existed. And in the system in which Henry is the source of all power—a system which Cromwell, in engineering England's break from Rome and the consolidation of power and wealth away from the nobility and priesthood and into Henry's hands, has worked hard to erect and fortify—there is no way for Cromwell to ever be entirely safe. I was rather pleased with myself, until I went and reread my review of Bring Up the Bodies, and realized I had already made this exact point there, eight years ago. There's nothing wrong with repetition, of course—it's how we reiterate and reinforce a point, especially one that is so central to the story Mantel is telling. But repetition is also all she has to draw on in The Mirror and the Light. There is nothing here that wasn't already present in the previous books—sometimes literally, as when she revisits scenes from Cromwell's past, or the events of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, in order to expand and elaborate on them.

What she does, with no option to go deeper, is expand outward. In the previous books, the Wars of the Roses were a dim specter, a horror out of the past, never described in detail, but held up as the justification for Henry's desperate scrambling after a legitimate male heir, for a strong and indisputable dynastic succession. In The Mirror and the Light, they are brought to life. Figures such as Henry Tudor, Edward IV, Richard III (who is usually referred to only as "the usurper"), George of Clarence, and Margaret Beaufort are namechecked, their deeds and decisions brought up, their examples followed (or ignored), their outstanding debts fueling present-day discord. Their descendants, the Poles and the Courtenays, Henry's dynastic rivals, with a better claim to the throne than his but no power to take it, drive much of the book's events. But it is the history of the Wars themselves that comes to the fore in Mirror, in a way that it didn't in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, suddenly present, exerting power over characters who had previously never stopped to consider it.
One by one, those gentlemen depart, who served the king's father, whose memories stretch back to King Edward and the days of the scorpion; men bruised in the wars, hacked in the field, impoverished, starved out, driven into exile; men who stood on foreign quays and swore great oaths to God, their worldly goods in sacks at their feet. Men who sequestered themselves in musty libraries for twenty years and emerged possessed of inconvenient truths about England. Men who learned to walk again, after they had been stretched on the rack.

When the men that were then look at the men that are now, they see companies of pretty painted knights, ambling through the meadows of plenty, through the pastures of a forty-years peace.
Much of The Mirror and the Light is made up of this kind of quiltwork, adding segments to the structure erected in the previous books that give it greater context. Some of Mantel's embroidery is delightful. As she did in Bring Up the Bodies, she inserts sly present-day political commentary into her historical storifying. When a peasants' revolt erupts in the North and spreads nearly to London, we are told that the genesis of it comes from disaffected apprentices and farmers
proclaiming the ballad of Worse-was-it-Never. There was a former age, it seems, when wives were chaste and peddlers honest, when roses bloomed at Christmas and every pot bubbled with fat and self-renewing capons. If these times are not those times, who is to blame? Londoners, probably. Members of Parliament. Reforming bishops. People who use English to talk to God.
But as the rebellion gains force, Cromwell muses that 
the rebels are writing lists of demands, and what they demand—along with the restoration of the Golden Age—are amendments of certain laws that bear on inheritance, how they can dispose of their goods in their wills. These are not the concerns of simple people. What has Hob or Hick to leave behind him, but some bad debts and broken shoes? No: these are the complaints of small landowners, and men who don't like to pay their taxes. Men who want to be petty kings in their shires, who want the women to curtsey as they pass through the marketplace. I know these paltry gods, he thinks. We had them in Putney. They have them everywhere.
One doesn't expect to find anti-Brexit point-scoring in a novel in which Europe is so undeniably the enemy, whose protagonist is consumed with establishing England as a world power, laying the groundwork for the empire to come. But there you have it, and the effectiveness of the barb is remarkable. Other times, Mantel strains one's patience. Did we need pages upon pages elaborating the rituals of Henry's levée and bedtime? Did we need to revisit Cromwell's past, his abusive father, his ne'er-do-well childhood, his slow rise from servant to mercenary to merchant to lawyer to courtier? None of this is bad, of course. All of it is expertly turned, beautifully written, absolutely fascinating. But it also has the feel of marking time. Quite a lot happens in The Mirror and the Light, for all that one might go into it expecting it to be a mere period on Cromwell's life. It's 450 pages before Jane Seymour dies. 600 before Anne of Cleves shows her face. In between there are crises galore—Henry's daughter Mary nearly talks herself onto the gallows through her refusal to acknowledge her father as the head of the church; the peasants' army nearly reaches London, baying for Cromwell's blood the entire time; the Poles and the Courtenays scheme while pretending loyalty to Henry and cooperation with Cromwell. But rather than come together into a crescendo, there's a certain episodic feeling to it all.

The simple fact is that Cromwell's life doesn't have a lesson. His fate isn't some neat dramatic comeuppance. He rose as far as he could, and then fell because there was nowhere left to go but up—to the kingship, which he is frequently accused of coveting but remains silent about, one question to which Mantel offers no definitive answer—or all the way down. Mantel, to her credit, resists the temptation to ascribe his fall to that perennial boogeyman of anti-hero stories, hubris. Or, conversely, to ironically reveal that it was his moments of kindness that doomed him. When the courtiers charged by Henry to engineer Cromwell's guilty verdict accuse him of crimes, they are invariably innocent behavior—some of it sanctioned by the king at the time—that has now been twisted to serve a new purpose. It's clear that if no crimes had existed, some would have been invented (as Cromwell himself has done at Henry's behalf). Cromwell has made mistakes—the disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves, his inability to lay hands on Reginald Pole, who denounces Henry to the Pope and schemes to usurp him by marrying Mary—but as Mantel herself is at pains to acknowledge, none of them are the failure that leads to his fall. What it all comes down to—as it did in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies—is Henry, getting tired of people he had previously claimed to love, losing patience with minor setbacks and looking for someone to blame. Most of all, fearing that those he has elevated due to skill and competence will overpower him, the man who had power given to him, and who is growing less worthy of it by the day.
Rafe shrugs. 'He is frightened of you, sire. You have outgrown him. You have gone beyond what any servant or subject should be.'

It is the cardinal over again, he thinks. Wolsey was broken not for his failures, but for his successes; not for any error, but for grievances stored up, about how great he had become.
What's left, then, is Cromwell himself. What does he want? What is his endgame? Does he see the fall coming? Mantel is, as ever, full of conflicting ideas. At times Cromwell seems nonchalant, even naive. He lets enemies live when he should have crushed them. Brings up protégés whose loyalty he can't rely on. When an intemperate remark made in the aftermath of Jane's death is reported to Henry, he never stops to think who in his household might have repeated it. He hoards honors and preferment—the Order of the Garter, a barony, an earldom—as if they have power to protect him from the man who gave them to him. Other times, he behaves as if he sees the gallows looming—stashing money abroad, leaving orders to burn incriminating letters, desperately but silently pleading with Henry to name him regent. More importantly, on the question of what Cromwell wants to achieve, what he hopes to leave behind him, or how high he hopes to rise, Mantel never entirely pulls back the curtain. The closest she comes is through Cromwell's visions of the future, the better world he believes he is making by detaching England from Rome, and encouraging Henry to see himself as his people's guardian and protector.
It takes a generation, he says, to reconcile heads and hearts. Englishmen of every shire are wedded to what their nurses told them. They do not like to think too hard, or disturb the plan of the world that exists inside their heads, and they will not accept change unless it puts them in better ease. But new times are coming. Gregory's children—and, he adds quickly, your Majesty's children yet to be born—will never have known their country in thrall to an old fraud in Rome. They will not put their faith in the teeth and bones of the dead, or in holy water, ashes and wax. When they can read the Bible for themselves, they will be closer to God than to their own skin. They will speak His language, and He theirs. They will see that a prince exists not to sit on a horse in a plumed helmet, but—as your Majesty always says—to care for his subjects, and so we stick by our prince through thick and thin. We do not reject part of his polity. We take him as a whole, consider him God's anointed, and suppose God is keeping an eye on him.
What's missing from The Mirror and the Light—so noticeably missing that one can only assume this is a deliberate choice—is any conclusion to this belief, either disillusionment or affirmation. Mantel has written Cromwell as a humanist in a world where that belief has no scope. The best he can do is trust in the goodness of one particular prince, even as Henry falls short of his hopes, grows more querulous and intemperate as age and poor health have their way with him. And yet, as he sits in the Tower awaiting his fate, Cromwell has no conclusion to draw over the project of his lifetime. He declines the opportunity to reflect, to pass judgment on himself or anyone else. This is true to who his always been, to his strong streak of pragmatism—the decisions have all been made, most of them with the best of intentions; what use is second-guessing now? But it leaves The Mirror and the Light feeling uncentered, less like a novel and more like a series of events following one after the other.

None of this makes the book a bad one, of course. Especially at this present moment, with so many of us trapped at home with our thoughts and worries, there are worse things to be presented with than a brick-sized piece of finely-written fiction about interesting people and events, accompanied by a fascinating, good-hearted yet deeply-flawed protagonist. But for those of us who were hoping for some catharsis, some conclusion to be drawn from this gloss on the story of Thomas Cromwell and the Tudor dynasty, this is not the place for it. As Mantel observes in her author's note at the end of the novel, in which she breaks from the tight third person to reveal the fate of characters whose ending Cromwell never got to see, the whole exercise ended in nothing. Henry's desperate seeking for an heir resulted in four children, all of whom died without issue, and in his sister's great-grandson taking the throne. So perhaps it's better to focus on the man, climbing the steps to the gallows and thinking, not of his grand project of remaking the world, but of his own petty fears and insistent memories. The best Mantel can do, for a story that defies endings, is to end it as the tale of a single, human, person.


Aonghus Fallon said…
It sounds like Mantel tried to side-step one of the core problems of historical fiction; an author is writing about something that happened but so remote from their own experience that their analysis is bound to be inaccurate. The problem is that by not providing any perspective, Mantel is failing as a novelist, because if a book doesn't have a thesis - some attitude towards its subject matter - what is the point of it? It is (as you say) just a series of events, following one after the other.

I'd rate Mantel for one novel in particular - 'Beyond Black'. For my money, it shows her really stretching herself as a novelist by deploying her unique style to transform the prosaic - ie the outer suburbs of London - into something genuinely terrifying.
Jacob Glicklich said…
Great article. I do quibble with this side note though " or the current seasons of Better Call Saul, feel as if a lot of air has been let out of them."
I think that sells the show short. S4 was a bit slow, and the lab-construction arc didn't add up too much, but S5 was better, and both were consistent in building up our understanding of Jimmy/Saul. Plus as a prequel it has a different momentum going on than typical of antihero drama. I would love to see a full post on Better Call Saul, of more comments/tweets here. I know you mentioned somewhere the "extreme object permanence" of the show, and that you found the development of Jimmy better than Breaking Bad's Jesse, I'd be interested on what you think of show overall, good and bad.
As it happens I am currently editing a post about the fifth season of Better Call Saul...

I agree that the fifth season was better than the fourth, but in ways that to me validate my overall judgment here. The showrunners seem to have realized that they have reached the end of Jimmy's character arc, and have pivoted in genuinely surprising ways.

Popular posts from this blog

The 2023 Hugo Awards: Somehow, It Got Worse

Recent Movie: The Batman

The 2023 Hugo Awards: Now With an Asterisk