So I am in the closing years of the imagined Cromwell’s life. What a treat, to be in the hands of Mantel! How many other privileged eyes are lingering over these fantastic pages? Warning, I will post as I read and there will be spoilers. I am up to p.225 in the hardback currently. If you haven’t read it yet, why not bookmark this blog for when you have to compare notes?
I bought the novel from Sainsbury’s at the start of lockdown. It’s very rare for me, understand, to shell out £12 on a brand new novel. Perhaps it was the prospect of the impending rigours of lockdown, mayhap it was the experience, I believe only at Christmas, of encountering Bring up the Bodies. What new ground can there be tread in this tome?
I am a little confused historically as I have been since perusing Tracy Borman’s biography of Thomas Cromwell, composed since the triumphs of Mantel’s first two novels in the sequence, unprecedented (there’s that timely word) in that they both garnered a Booker Prize. Events are occurring in the novel that seem to me to already have happened (e.g. the whole Ann Of Cleves saga I know about but it has yet to transpire, seems to me to have already happened, but Henry’s displeasure with Cromwell is still focused on Anne’s death and the rumours that fly around the streets about Henry’s manhood).
For any who have not read the first two in the sequence, can I assure you, that this is an extraordinary work of fiction. I’m not widely read, I’ll admit, in modern fiction, although I enjoy reading anything that is acclaimed or admired by those I take note of. Much of my reading is spent in other categories nowadays. But read Mantel’s trilogy NOT to find out the historical details. There are historical accounts and other fiction enough for that, I think. Read Mantel for the prose. Read Mantel for the insights into mortality, into fear, into the sensuous detail of the life that she paints. For the escapism into a more luxuriant England, a coarser England, an England redolent with religion, with ghosts, with an even greater obsession for great ones and the problems they bring.
I mean to give a little commentary on portions I have read so far.
I sat down to read the book knowing that at the end of it Cromwell’s head will roll, because that is history. Cromwell has long been portrayed as a rotter in historical accounts, especially for helping to do away with Thomas More. It’s very hard when reading Mantel to see him as villainous because we are inside his head all the time. I always view him sympathetically in this world since the sudden loss of his wife and daughters whom he seemed to love, in Wolf Hall I think that was.
All through the book there are presentiments of his fate. Spoiler one: Cromwell has narrowly escaped handing a ring as gift to Mary, Henry’s daughter. No hint in Cromwell’s mind that he meant it as a troth, which would have been treason to him. Henry has said HE would gift it to his daughter instead.
But more interesting than the raw events, is Mantel’s recent riff on his being accompanied by the men he sent to the axe at the end of the last volume (or the start of this). It is quite believable that a man such a Cromwell has become, as a child getting another boy whipped for his misdemeanours, as a man is capable of engineering other men’s’ deaths for his own ends. Mantel juxtaposes it with Henry on his knees in prayer, an almost Shakespearean touch, shades of Claudius or perhaps Richard II. Perhaps we no longer are convicted of our guilt in this time because our sins are so diffused and it is harder to point a finger and to say what we did? All our sins today appear corporate, collective, enshrined in law, proclaimed as holy by the media and the atheists, even by the faithful. But not so in Mantel’s world.
Cromwell’s sins have become epic as crossing the Thames becomes crossing the Styx accompanied by the ghosts of the men he has sent to their deaths. And he has sweaty foreshadowing of his own incarceration in the Tower. The architect of that system of execution, who even keeps clerks and property at the Tower, is shortly to end up there himself (well we have a matter of a few hundred pages before that happens).
The Mirror and the Light is a pleasing hardback volume, the pages are substantial and the ribbon that comes with it is very elegant. Better than forcing a receipt or a leaflet between the pages to mark where I’m up to. I’m glad I’m not reading it on a Kindle. The luxury of the prose would be eviscerated on my small Kindle’s dull screen. When I pick it up to read I swim through a number of pages, the long chapters fall away, the shorter sections absorbing in every conversation, Cromwell indicting himself further, it seems, with every decision he takes. I don’t want this incredible narrative to end.
How much sweat and tears did Mantel take over this effortless prose? Mistress of sensual detail, and ventriloquist of believable dialogue, as well as indelible phrases: Beware, my Lord, of gratitude. Already this is a triumph.