Martha Lane Fox, chair of the judging panel, said: “We are all living in challenging, sad and complex times so incredible stories provide hope, a moment of escape and a point of connection now more than ever. Choosing the shortlist was tough – we went slowly and carefully and passions ran high – just as you would want in such a process. But we are all so proud of these books – all readers will find solace if they pick one up.”
The buried revenge plot is one means by which Mantel shapes the flow of time into a novel. She has many other tricks. Scenes and themes in The Mirror and the Light are closely and cleverly interwoven. Indeed one of these themes is the act of embroidering. Members of the queen’s entourage are set to unpick the monogram ‘HA’, Henry and Anne, from courtly fabrics in order to make way for the initials of the new queen. The terrifyingly self-possessed women of the Pole family (the mother and sister of Cardinal Pole, whom Cromwell tries and fails to have assassinated) produce emblematic embroidery which entwines their family’s pansies with Princess Mary’s marigolds, and which, when the family’s crash comes, is used as evidence against them.
The third of the Thomas Cromwell books is a lavish processional, rich in perception and texture. There are images of unbearable beauty, and images of unspeakable depravity. There are the foul intrigues of the nobility, as careless of their adversaries as they are of the common people. There is the scent of tansey worn in a lady’s bodice. Passages of intrigue give way to passages of radiance. There is a restlessness to the text, a debt to beauty which engrosses. The book is perhaps half a million words; a good book is as long as it needs to be.
The grace and grip of the descriptive prose may distract from Mantel’s exceptional skill with dialogue, an element of fiction at which many otherwise successful novelists falter. Having characters misunderstand each other is a sign of how sharply the writer is hearing the voices, as when Cromwell is asked by the French-speaking ambassador Chapuys: ‘What will happen to Guiett?’, and needs a moment to interpret as: ‘What? Oh, Wyatt. He is in the Tower.’ Apart from the reference to a particular medieval punishment, these speeches, though never anachronistic, could come from conversations in Pinter or le Carré. It is no surprise that the earlier books translated so well to the RSC stage and BBC screen. (Theatre and television versions of the third book are already underway.)
The process of fictionalization accelerates sharply after Cromwell falls out of favour with the king. In the final pages of the novel, when he is being interrogated in the Tower – after all the scenes in which we’ve seen him interrogating others, the atmosphere is thick with pathos – he finds that his public persona, the reputation that it was his life’s work to create, has been all but erased. “The questions never make any more sense than they did on the first day, nor does the picture of his life ever reflect the reality as he sees it. The mirror presents an alien face, eyes askew, mouth gaping.” Hilary Mantel’s prodigious feat is to have given Cromwell another face, one that he might even have recognized as his own; she has cast a dazzling new light onto the tarnished mirror of the past.
Apart from the pleasure offered by a historical novel’s evocation of the past and giving it a new and vivid life, it does at its best two valuable things: first, it reminds us that the men and women of the time were not the dry figures they may appear to be in academic histories but people of flesh, blood and feeling; second, it reminds us that while history may be read backward, as it were, it is lived forward, the actors ignorant of what is to come. Mantel has an uncanny skill in presenting us with uncertainty, in conveying the precariousness of not only politics, but life itself, in a time of revolutionary change and upheaval.
Mantel’s prose is steadily and quietly luminous, occasionally delivering unforgettable surprises: “the air as damp as if the afternoon had been rubbed with snails”. The book’s length is formidable, nearly as long as the two previous volumes put together. Even a very sympathetic reader may wonder whether some passages could have been lost without damage – the episode in which what may or may not be Thomas Becket’s relics are dug up in Canterbury, for example; and I was not sure quite what work was being done by the introduction of Cromwell’s (fictional) Flemish daughter from a youthful liaison.
This new novel is a different creature — Cromwell is a different creature, less tentative and more ruminative. For pages and pages, he dwells on the past, on his childhood — that beating on the cobblestones. The startling, bony style of the first two books has been abandoned. The prose is plush, the sentences longer and more adorned, tricked out with little tassels and extended metaphors. Even as certain pages proved a slog, certain scenes repetitive, even as I entertained heretical thoughts about pruning certain sections, or striking them entirely, these choices follow a certain logic. This is not a younger man’s book, not a book of striving. It is a novel of late middle age, a novel of preserving what one has seized — of fighting off young, hungry men who remind you of yourself, who will use your own methods against you. Above all, it is a novel of living with the dead. Mantel names the deceased in her dramatis personae at the beginning of her books; how that list has grown.
Over the course of these novels Mantel has developed a style all her own, imitated by many, bettered by none. Its success lies in its ability not just to evoke the immediacy and tangibility of the Tudor world but also to give us the feeling that we are with Thomas Cromwell at all times. There is an almost televisual aspect to the way Mantel offers a segmented, episodic approach to plot, and the trilogy has something of the fullness of the best long-form TV dramas.
Ominously prefaced by a five-and-a-half-page list of characters and two five-generation royal family trees, the novel is as overpopulated as it is overloaded. Some artistic pattern is imposed by structural symmetries: Wolf Hall started with the 15-year-old Cromwell lying in his own blood on the cobbles of Putney after a brutal beating from his father, The Mirror & the Light closes with the 55-year-old Cromwell lying in his own blood as he dies by the executioner’s axe on Tower Hill. His beheading and that of Anne Boleyn strikingly bookend this novel.
There is nothing sentimental in Cromwell’s end, only the most devastating humanity, leaving the reader with stopped breath and a sense of amazement, after closing the book, that the real world is continuing outside. It feels redundant to state that The Mirror and the Light is a masterpiece. With this trilogy, Mantel has redefined what the historical novel is capable of; she has given it muscle and sinew, enlarged its scope, and created a prose style that is lyrical and colloquial, at once faithful to its time and entirely recognisable to us. Taken together, her Cromwell novels are, for my money, the greatest English novels of this century.
Mantel’s style remains exhilarating: it is a conflation of expansiveness and precision, refined across her career, which has no peer. The hoary old gods of prose still haunting the shelves from their 20th-century deathbeds (be taut and spare as a fishing-line! suffer a hanging for an adverb!) are kicked down a flight of stairs. Her sentences, not markedly long, nonetheless contain multitudes; the reader’s senses are deliciously engaged (the painter Holbein, for example, “trails with him the scents of his occupation, the scents of linseed and lavender oil, pine-resin and rabbit-skin glue”); and in all this her sharp and mordant wit makes itself felt like pins stuck in a yard of velvet. A colon is correctly placed: if Mantel says it is.
What The Mirror and the Light offers — even more than the two previous volumes — is engulfing total sensory immersion in a world as completely vanished as Henry’s Nonsuch Palace, materialised through feats of voice, vision, touch and taste. Voice is paramount since it needs to be immediately accessible without jarring anachronism. I have no idea what vocal (and pensive) models Mantel chose for Cromwell but in Montaigne’s Essays and Erasmus she has writing styles that are often close to utterance and are exactly poised between modern bluntness and Renaissance self-interrogation.
The “Wolf Hall” trilogy is probably the greatest historical fiction accomplishment of the past decade; the first two volumes both won Man Booker Prizes. But after “Bring Up the Bodies,” the enterprise, like Henry, has put on weight and self-importance. The final book feels heavier with food and custom and ceremony; catalogs of saints’ relics, clothing and wedding presents; an epic paragraph about plums. Mantel’s brilliance is never far from being in evidence, as in this line about gargoyles: “Outside the rain runs down the windows: Lead men on rooftops spout it from their maws.” And yet, the sentence is deployed, like dozens of others, to impart a portentous tone just before a section break, as if we need regular reminding that the story, like Cromwell’s knotty nature, really should compel us.
Mantel’s depiction of royal court intrigue is excellent. She captures the atmosphere of a place choking on itself, where councillors take turns at being humiliated. Cromwell, a former cloth merchant, a self-made man, is at the centre of most machinations. He is constantly watchful. He posts guards at every door. “The times being what they are, a man may enter the gate as your friend and change sides while he crosses the courtyard,” he remarks. Everything is a performance for this scheming, hateful man with “small, quick eyes” and “a black heart”.
She is still exuberantly rethinking what novels can do. Not since Bleak Househas the present tense performed such magic. The narrative voice rides at times like a spirit or angel on thermals of vitality, catching the turning seasons, the rhythms of work and dreams, cities and kitchens and heartbeats. Mantel did not have much to learn about scene-setting or dramatic timing, but her involvement in the staging of Wolf Hall, and the experience of watching the television adaptation, may have contributed to an ever-finer honing of dialogue. In a room at the Tower, in the time it takes to burn two candles, a prisoner’s silence mounts towards confession. On a thundery midsummer night, talking quietly in a garden tower at Canonbury, eating strawberries while the moon comes up, two men arrange the future “a hair’s-breadth at a time”.
Endings, insists Cromwell, are opportunities. What begins now is the rereading. For this is a masterpiece that will keep yielding its riches, changing as its readers change, going forward with us into the future.
As before, Mantel immerses us with extraordinary skill in the teeming Tudor world that has preoccupied her for over a decade. Passages of heartstopping lyrical beauty vie with tortured screams from the Tower. But that list above of Cromwell’s own titles indicates the book’s main problems. Who are all these people? The Cast of Characters has a staggering 102 names including Jenneke, a daughter to Cromwell who is invented by the author only to disappear again. Did she not have enough real people to deal with? With very little scene-setting and chapters heavily reliant on dialogue, halfway down a page you can suddenly find you have no idea who’s speaking so you have to go back to the top and start again. No wonder so many people prefer to listen to the audiobooks... If The Mirror & The Light is the least perfect volume in the Wolf Hall trilogy, that still makes it better than almost anything else of its kind. Hilary Mantel has written an epic of English history that does what the Aeneid did for the Romans and War and Peace for the Russians. We are lucky to have it.
It’s not just that she has the gift of bringing the past to life. She does that, with her extraordinary gift of lighting on the details of existence and making them real...what Mantel gets so brilliantly right are the intimate details that counted for everything in a Renaissance court – the gossip, the importance of sheer proximity to the monarch, how rumour passes through ladies in waiting, the way the king’s very chamber pot is treated reverently. She’s also brilliant on food – cod done in saffron, eels cooked with orange, pike with onions – the dinners Cromwell shares with the slippery (real) Imperial envoy make your mouth water.
So, to cut to the chase, does it merit another Booker? Yes it does
This is by far the most dense of the three books, with courtly politicking and paranoia as Cromwell runs out of luck. The real beauty of these novels has always been the heady sense that Mantel is ushering us behind the curtain to glimpse the dark workings of power and statecraft in a secret history of England. Mantel's voice, dryly comic with a bawdy streak, is earthy yet elegant, free of ye olde cod historicisms, cleanly modern without being anachronistic... For sure, it's the capstone on an amazing feat of sustained achievement, but The Mirror & the Light could break the hearts of ardent Mantelites by not quite living up to the nigh-on impossibly high standards she set with the last two.
No-one writes quite like Mantel. Her words thrust us deep into the heart of Henry’s febrile court, where we see courtiers jostling for power, the new queen Jane Seymour, “regrettably pale and as usual silent”, and Henry himself, the sick man of Europe, corpulent, nursing a hunting injury, refusing to acknowledge that he is no longer the golden youth to whom all once bent a knee... Ambitious, compassionate, clear-eyed yet emotional, passionate and pragmatic, The Mirror & The Light lays down a marker for historical fiction that will set the standard for generations to come.
One of the slightly unfortunate effects of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels is that they make 99 per cent of contemporary literary fiction feel utterly pale and bloodless by comparison. After a few sentences of The Mirror and the Light — a few words, even — you’re thinking, yes, this is how it should be done... Mantel is such diligent chronicler of Cromwell’s life that the novel does become a bit play-by-play in its midsection, tracking seemingly every engagement in the royal calendar. But one wonders if this is simply because she can’t bear to let him go. Mantel sees this as her life’s project and yet the book wears its research with remarkable insouciance. This is rich, full-bodied fiction. Indeed, it might well be the best of the trilogy simply because there is more of it, a treasure on every page.
And what Mantel gets so brilliantly right are the intimate details that counted for everything in a Renaissance court – the gossip, the importance of sheer proximity to the monarch, how rumour passes through ladies in waiting, the way the king’s very chamber pot is treated reverently. She’s also brilliant on food – cod done in saffron, eels cooked with orange, pike with onions – the dinners Cromwell shares with the slippery (real) Imperial envoy make your mouth water.
Quite possibly the literary event of 2020, this heavily-embargoed title is the conclusion to Hilary Mantel's trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies both scooped the Booker Prize, and this final part will surely be in the running for a third. It picks up immediately from Bring Up the Bodies, with Anne Boleyn's blood seeping across the scaffold and Cromwell turning from the grisly scene in search of breakfast. Cromwell is a man without a great family to back him, he must rely only on his wits to climb the heights of power. But for how long?