I am now just into Part 5 of The Mirror and the Light, and I should warn, this contains spoilers. I have read hundreds of pages since my last review, and at one point I certainly said to myself, ‘If it’s a choice between reading and writing a review, I’d much rather continue to read.’ This has to be a compliment to Mantel’s superb prose.
It’s only this novel, recently, and Atwood’s Testament, that in hardback has furnished this reader with a thread marker; this has become enormously useful due to the size of this volume. It’s now unwieldy to hold and read at p.655, with a mere 230 pages to go. Too much to read in one day, I note (with the rain tumbling outside, its an attractive prospect to entirely immerse myself in Cromwell’s final doom).
I cannot hope to cover in this short review the few hundred pages I have read, but I note that last time I was commenting on Cromwell’s indiscretion with a woman – it would be remiss of me not to note an even bigger mistake, as a conversation with Bess Seymour turns on a mortifying misunderstanding: Cromwell believes he is wooing on behalf of his son, but Bess assumes that he is after her himself. This dialogue set-piece repays careful re-reading from different perspectives! Who knows when you might find yourself in a similar delicate position. This piece of dialogue is Austenesque (is that the word?) recalling Elizabeth Collin’s presence of mind during Darcy’s proposal, and I do think Cromwell’s precipitous failures with women in this volume are a substantial indicator of how the tide will turn against him, try for example this retort:
‘In other respects I agree,’ her voice is icy. ‘I think there has been a misunderstanding. I am offering my person to one Cromwell only, the one I marry. But which Cromwell is it meant to be?’
His mind flies back to his conversation with Edward. It lands, light as a fly, and begins to crawl over it: over every meaningful pause, every ellipsis. Were names spoken? Perhaps not. Could Edward have supposed – could Edward have mistaken – yes, he supposes he could. (.481)
Part of the fun here is the confusion present in a conversation we as readers did not witness. Cromwell is desperate to marry into the King’s family (as Bess is Jane Seymour’s sister) – it is unfortunate shortly after that Jane Seymour dies, leaving his son Gregory not so well-attached as he would have liked. Mantel captures well throughout the novel the stance that women have to take in being bargaining chips – recently we are given Mary’s words on possibly being married: ‘she says she will do as her father tells her, but that given her choice, she would rather stay in the land of her birth and remain a virgin. It is a modest answer, which no one can fault.’ (p.646). This reflects the religious tenor of the time, and Mary’s devout piety – but also the lack of control that women had over their destiny, similar to Bess Seymour. Her final parting shot at Cromwell as he recovers from the impression that he has been wooing her for himself (and perhaps this would have been preferable – to make his last years happier?):
‘He is all together better than me – ‘ I, he thinks, who am so soiled in life’s battle, so seamed and scarred, so numb, so unwanted, so cold.
‘Stop,’ she says. ‘First, too few words. Now, too many.’
‘But you will? You will wed Gregory?’
‘Tell me when and where, and I will come in my bridal finery and marry whichever Cromwell presents himself. I am an obliging woman,’ she says. ‘Though not so obliging as you thought.’
She walks away on the grassy path, but she does not hurry.
Just to pause and appreciate the asperity and dignity of Bess’s dialogue here, conversing with a powerful man (and having expressed moments before the desire to have Thomas Cromwell’s children) – her irony that Cromwell had failed to supply enough words to make it clear that Gregory was the Cromwell being offered (yes, younger and fresher – and highly satisfactory as it quickly transpires, but coming with no titles, unlike Cromwell who is a Lord, a Baron and soon to be Knight of the Garter). In seven words she judges Cromwell, and I wonder if this might stand as an epitaph for him: First, too few words. Now too many.’ Mantel certainly gives the reputation that Cromwell cannot be read, cannot be second-guessed. He appears currently (which is around 1539, so not long before his execution) to prefer to supply Henry with pregnant pauses, rather than supply enough rope to hang himself with (although we guess that’s coming, and wonder which of his bad-tempered judgments will indict him). But what a superb final position-statement that Bess gives: ‘when and where’. The sarcasm over ‘bridal finery’ is not lost. It would be humorous, almost farcical, if the damage had not already been done between her and Gregory. When Gregory lets slip shortly after that Bess has informed him about the misunderstanding, Cromwell seems crestfallen as if he hoped she would keep it quiet.
For me, one of the great pleasures of the novel is the rapport between Cromwell and his cronies, his proteges – both his son Gregory, Rafe Sadler, and in this novel Call-Me. It is part of my interest in the final section as to how those relationships will settle at last. This set piece appears to put Cromwell at odds with his only son, who has to insist that Cromwell does NOT write to Bess, and leaves her for himself alone.
I must mention one other episode (I won’t dwell on Hans’ painting of Henry, although that occasioned several wonderful scenes) – and this is the burning of Father Forrest, who does not appear to recant his Popery. It is ironic that I have just read of another burning (described in much less detail, just hinted at) of Lambert – this time a Reformation man – and Cromwell is unable to stand and defend him. This appears to me very much the beginning of the end for him. But Mantel’s description of Forrest’s burning is transfixing, almost as dramatic as Anne Boleyn’s beheading in ‘Bring up the Bodies’ – I will give a snippet:
When the heat reaches him Forrest draws up his blistered bare feet. He contorts himself, screaming, but is obliged to let his legs down into the fire…this stage seems to last a long time, the flames reaching upward, and the man’s efforts to escape them ever more feeble, until at last he hangs and does not resist, and his upper body begins to burn. The friar raises his arms, which have been left free, as if he is clawing towards HEAVEN…at a signal, the executioners step forward and with long iron poles reach into the flames, hook the roasting torso from its chain, and pitch it into the fire below. It goes with a scream from the spectators, a rush and spurt of flame; then we hear no more from Father Forrest.
Cromwell appears increasingly obsessed with executions, not only his childhood memory of seeing Joan Boughton burned, but also what he anticipates will be his end. Currently he is suffering from a fever, as I read, and it is getting so bad that he has been asked who he would like as his final confessor. I was moved a couple of pages ago as Henry asked him could they pray together, and enquired how Cromwell proceeds in his prayers. Feeling as if I am inside Cromwell’s head, I know that Cromwell does not pray too well – perhaps has little headspace for it – and sadly I can relate to that at times! Perhaps he has already got to the point where he doesn’t hope for mercy any more.
However Mantel tries to play it, or tries to hide it, we are following the documented fortunes of a monster – at least, someone who became a monster through his rise, and ultimately became obsessed with something intangible, something other than simply modernizing England, but also about his own posterity. She is starting to paint his life in large tragic brushstrokes now – the chimera of greatness hanging around and off him since the start of the novel – a greatness that never really materialised for him. This is more akin to modern tragedy than to Shakespearean – more like a Krapp from Beckett (‘I wouldn’t go back, not with the fire in me now’) or even a Dame Blanche from ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ who had the pathetic desire to die in innocence.
Let’s keep reading!