The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

With her head tucked underneath her arm

She walks the Bloody Tower

With her head tucked underneath her arm

With her head tucked underneath her arm

[From With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm

by Sammy Gay (1934)]

It would normally be pantomime season (oh yes it would) so it seems kind of fitting to review a book about a man who is often cast by history in the role of pantomime villain: Thomas Cromwell.

This is the third in Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. The first, Wolf Hall, followed Cromwell’s rise from low-born son of a Putney blacksmith, brewer and general bully-boy to become Master Secretary, one of the most powerful positions in the Court of King Henry VIII – and won Mantel the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Along the way Thomas Moore is executed, Queen Catherine replaced by Anne Boleyn, and Henry established as Head of the Church in England.

The second in the trilogy, Bring Up The Bodies, sees Anne replaced by Jane Seymour, and Cromwell promoted to Baron for facilitating the process. Cue Mantel winning the 2012 Man Booker Prize and Costa Book of the Year. At the time Mantel was only the fourth author to win the Booker twice (following in the footsteps of J M Coetzee, Peter Carey and J G Farrell) and the first woman to do so.

The Mirror & the Light continues Mantel’s “efforts to dig him (Cromwell) out”, a man she previously described in an author’s note as “sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie”. It begins and ends with an execution: at the start, Anne Boleyn’s; at the end Thomas Cromwell’s. (It’s historical fact, so I can hardly be accused of giving away the plot!)

In between Jane Seymour dies, Henry rejects Anna of Cleves and begins to lust after a teenager, Katherine Howard. So far, so unsurprising. Henry and his wives are an ever-present feature of the English school curriculum. (Though I do love the idea that it was Anna’s undisguised repulsion on first seeing Henry, by then fat, middle-aged and gouty, that led him to reject her, rather than her being too ugly as I was taught.)

And what of Thomas? There are so many possible reasons for his downfall. Perhaps he nailed his colours too close to Anna’s mast, or rose too high, or Henry turned on him as he turned on everyone in time, or his schemes, such as dissolving the monasteries, or registering births, deaths and marriages, were too unpopular with the masses.

The book is packed from cover to cover with power struggles and political machinations but what makes it so special – and what bagged Mantel all those awards, I guess – is just how beautifully it is written.

If you get to this point in the trilogy you won’t need me to tell you about the quality of the writing; you’ll already have read over 1,000 pages of Mantel’s wonderful prose. This book will make it another 900 almost. Time well spent.

Rating: **** One of the best books I’ve read this year

PS Thomas’s nephew, Richard Cromwell, survived his uncle’s disgrace. Richard’s great-grandson, Oliver Cromwell, executed Charles I – so you could say that Thomas had his revenge on the English monarchy in the end!

PPS The lyrics at the start of the blog are from a 1934 ‘comedy’ song about the ghost of Anne Boleyn. I remember it being sung to me when I was a little girl. I came across the 8” shellac record when we cleared out my uncle’s house after he died.


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