The Dead Against the Living: On Hilary Mantel’s “The Mirror & The Light”

April 9, 2020   •   By Maya Chhabra

The Mirror & The Light

Hilary Mantel

MORE THAN A DECADE has passed since the first volume of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy appeared and catapulted the veteran author to literary superstardom. In the intervening years, the daring choice of protagonist, unusual descriptive prose style, and deep-dive point-of-view manipulation that made Mantel’s take on Henry VIII’s advisor fresh have all been absorbed into the mainstream. Rare is the author of Tudor historical fiction who is neither influenced by nor responding to Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

In many ways, The Mirror & The Light is merely a continuation — at somewhat greater length — of the techniques that made those books successful. We are still deep in Cromwell’s point of view without being limited to it; every so often, the narration draws back to add an aside about England’s mythic, irrational past. We still see what Cromwell sees, and, in this book, we are equally blindsided by some of the actions of other characters, though the clues were there all along.

But in addition to bringing the story of Thomas Cromwell to its sticky end, Mantel uses the concluding volume to cast a new light on the events of the first two books. The metaphor of mirror and light not only refers to its source, the historical Cromwell’s praise of Henry as a model king, but to the way one’s point of view on the same event shifts and changes with the angle. Even the past can be changed, or at least the memory of it destabilized.

As promised, The Mirror & The Light covers the last few years of Cromwell’s life, including his role in Henry’s ill-fated marriage to Anne of Cleves. Promoted by Cromwell, the match was quickly annulled after the king found his bride unappealing. Cromwell was dispatched with equal haste, sent to the Tower of London and executed. He meets the fate he engineered for, among others, Thomas More and Anne Boleyn, whose executions capped the previous two volumes. The narrative of his time in the king’s service is turned into one of concealed treason; every one of his actions has a new construction put on it. “They are rewriting my life,” Cromwell thinks.

Mantel has previously framed the struggle surrounding the Reformation as one of the living new future against the dead, rotting — yet still powerful — past. There’s no doubt as to which side her version of Cromwell is on — he wants nothing more than to shape the future. But though he framed his struggle with More and Catholicism as “the living against the dead” in Wolf Hall, he now finds that his own past will not let go of him, and that it may not be what he thought it was.

Cromwell’s mistake, before the book even begins, is to have arranged the fall of Anne Boleyn so that (in Mantel’s telling) various enemies of Cromwell’s previous employer, Wolsey, fall with her. Cromwell has long brooded on Wolsey’s downfall; now his enemies know he is still bound by the past and carrying a grudge. They use this fact to provoke and destroy him. After all, Wolsey was ultimately brought down by Henry himself, and if Cromwell is going after Wolsey’s enemies, it’s easy to believe he counts the king he serves among them.

Was Wolsey really as deserving of loyalty as Cromwell thinks? “Your butcher god,” Cromwell’s enemy Norfolk calls him, while yet another enemy points out that “[i]f someone had given you the brief, you yourself would have convicted him.”

When Cromwell meets Wolsey’s daughter, she tells him she believes he betrayed Wolsey at the end. Cromwell is sure this isn’t true, but it cuts him adrift from what he thought the past was. Mantel uses a similar technique to show the reader that what they know from previous books or pages may not be the whole story — or even all of what Cromwell saw. She often revisits scenes that have already passed to add more information, thereby changing their resonance, and this nonlinear method keeps the reader slightly off-balance.

Most crucially, she revisits the very first scene of the trilogy, Cromwell as a teenager being beaten up by his brutal father. It turns out that there’s much more to the story, and that the young Cromwell had just fatally stabbed an equally young enemy. Mantel, as usual, slightly pulls her punches, keeping Cromwell sympathetic by making the stabbing half an accident from his point of view, as if she doesn’t trust that we will stick with the character otherwise. A similar problem ruins the conclusion of her earlier novel, the otherwise excellent A Place of Greater Safety — she doesn’t let her characters risk losing the reader’s sympathy, doesn’t rely on the hundreds of pages before to carry the reader to understanding. But overall, the effect of this revelation is powerful and startling.

Mantel also uses the archival record in interesting ways. Cromwell’s phrase “the mirror and the light,” used to describe Henry as an exemplary prince, comes from a letter he writes after witnessing Henry publicly debate then burn a “heretic.” Interwoven with quotes from this letter is narration about Cromwell’s real feelings, which differ from the praise he is writing down. Fearing that he himself may be labeled a heretic for his reformist views, he has kept quiet throughout the debate even though he sympathizes much more with the prisoner than with his master Henry. For the first time, he feels real guilt about what he is doing to achieve power. After all, what is the point of everything he has done to separate England from the Catholic church if people who share his secret Protestant beliefs are still burned?

So the titular phrase takes on a deep ambiguity. We can’t trust the written record, because the real people who wrote those documents had motives we cannot accurately discern from this remove. And into this gap step the historical novelists. The usual telling has Henry disgusted with his new wife Anne of Cleves’s appearance; here Mantel cleverly reverses the story and has him put off by her inability to hide her own disgust.

The increasingly unpredictable Henry is no model, no “mirror for princes,” as the genre of advice for rulers was named. But he is also far from stupid, and in the end outwits Cromwell himself, lifting him high before smashing his expectations and his life. The king gets the last word in their last conversation — Cromwell replies to the insinuation that he has threatened Henry with the pious wish, “God forbid.” “He does,” Henry snaps back.

Henry can only see a person’s external actions, as his daughter Mary points out. Mary finds freedom in this revelation, as she can secretly continue to believe whatever she wants while obeying her father in deed. But this fact is a trap for Cromwell, whose actions can be misrepresented as treason, as “outward obedience” to conceal disloyalty.

While The Mirror & The Light may not win the Booker, as the previous two volumes did, it certainly sticks the difficult landing, and adds something new to the trilogy. It’s too long, at over 700 pages, and has a few odd tics, such as the repetition of the word “augmented” in season and out of season, but it’s a solid end to a trilogy that has, from its first volume, pushed the boundaries of historical fiction. The length of the book offers the opportunity to sink into Mantel’s gorgeous and precise prose. And it complicates the first two books. Cromwell is no longer just the living future fighting free of the dead past, but part of that past himself. In the epigraph from François Villon’s “Ballade of the Hanged Men,” we are invited to sympathize with the dead and not to “harden our hearts against [them].” Mantel’s project of reviving the past with sympathy for an unusual and often ruthless protagonist is encapsulated in those words. Even after thousands of pages over the course of a decade, readers will be sorry to leave Cromwell and his contemporaries behind.

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Maya Chhabra is a writer and translator living in New York. Her poetry, fiction, and translations have appeared in a number of venues, and a historical novel is forthcoming next year.