The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2020.
Summary: The third and final installment of Mantel’s historical fiction account of the life of Thomas Cromwell from the pinnacle of his own career under Henry VIII following the execution of Anne Boleyn, to his own downfall.
It has been eleven years since Hilary Mantel introduced us to the character of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, and eight years since Bring Up the Bodies. The lasting impression this book leaves with me is the mix of knowing and unknowing that made up Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s “fixer” who both seems to grasp and be oddly oblivious to the danger of flying like a moth too close to Henry’s flame.
The book opens with Anne Boleyn’s death by the swordsman, after Cromwell had managed her trial and that of her adulterers to the conclusion Henry desired. He witnesses her death, and then goes to his breakfast and the pinnacle of his career. As Henry takes Jane Seymour to be his wife, he is elevated to Lord Privy Seal and Baron, and Vicegerent, along with retaining his role as Secretary.
The book traces Cromwell’s efforts to support an aging Henry VIII, suffering from an unhealed leg wound and growing waistline, as he desperately seeks to conceive a son with Jane. All the while, Cromwell is trying to fill the treasury through the dismantling of the monastic houses, implement reforms to decisively move the Church of England away from Rome, keep Henry’s European enemies at war with each other, and put down a rebellion in the north directed as much at his reforms as Henry, while also keeping Scotland at bay.
Cromwell the widower seems to have a soft spot for women. There is Bess, Jane Seymour’s sister, toward whom Cromwell is drawn, yet marries off to his son in a Freudian engagement process (to whom is she being engaged?). He protects the princess Mary, daughter of Katherine, persuading her to renounce the Church and declare loyalty to Henry. Again, Cromwell is suspect of wanting to marry her, interfering with her role as a pawn in diplomacy.
The unraveling begins with the death of Jane shortly after she gave birth to Edward. Once again Cromwell is tasked with finding a mate for the aging king hoping for additional heirs to ensure the succession. This is one of his greatest failure in the king’s eyes, due to the unattractive woman he found in Anne of Cleves, with whom he was unable to consummate the marriage. Increasingly as well, the reforms in the church brought growing resistance from traditionalists who gained Henry’s ear. The Bishop’s Book was countered by the Six Articles restoring traditional views of the mass, eucharist, and priesthood.
Mantel observes that Cromwell’s greatest danger was at his own table. Incautious statements are remembered. French ambassadors and trusted associates join with Bishop Gardiner and the Duke of Norfolk in his arrest and interrogation in the Tower where he had interrogated others, with the techniques he had himself used. Indicted under a list of charges on which he was never tried, his last act was to draft the annulment papers for the King to end his marriage to Anne of Cleves and marry Katherine Parr. The fixer to the end, expendable after have completed his final act of service.
Throughout, it seems he was aware of his vulnerability, remembering how his father had beaten him and the image of his fathers unlaced shoes as he lay on the ground. Yet his gifts brought him closer and closer to Henry, until perhaps he believed in his own indispensability. Yet there are flashbacks throughout to the “indispensable” Cardinal Wolsey, whose fall he had witnessed as a young man. Did he believe his own gifts would deliver him? Or was he caught in the bind of his powers and his loyalties from which he could not step away?
As in her other novels, all this unfolds through dialogue, the most challenging aspect of reading Mantel. Other than the “he” which always denotes Cromwell, one has to keep careful track of who is speaking as well as when Cromwell as speaking, or merely thinking. We see the deftness of Cromwell, an iron fist in a velvet glove, in all the maneuvering in the court of Henry, the tension of a devotion both to Henry and to England. If one is willing to work through the inner monologues and outer dialogues, what emerges is Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell as a complicated man: internally motivated to competence and yet loyal, tender and ruthless, pious and a pragmatist, ambitious yet at least partially aware of the dangers of ambition, powerful and yet conscious of the ephemeral nature of his standing, seemingly knowing that Anne Boleyn’s end could easily be his own.