England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen, Jane Seymour.
Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?
With The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion and courage.
Back in December 2012, on the release of ‘Bring up the Bodies’, I went to a talk given by Hilary Mantel at Draper’s Hall in London, the site of Thomas Cromwell’s London home. She talked about the third in the series, ‘The Mirror and the Light’ and I’ve been waiting since then to read it.
It’s been a long eight years! But it was so worth the wait.
I pre-ordered ‘The Mirror and the Light’, obviously, and then decided when it arrived that I would have to read ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ again first. So these weird weeks of lockdown have seen me immersed in Tudor London again, and, very weirdly, falling in love with Thomas Cromwell. Again.
I have read a lot of books. I have spent my life reading. My two degrees have involved a huge amount of reading, and reading, in the words of Anne Bronte, in my favourite occupation. And in all this reading, all these books, Hilary Mantel is my absolute favourite author. If I could only read one author, ever, it would be Mantel, by a huge margin
She has this amazing ability to draw you so completely into her world, to be able to picture each scene, to feel everything. In Cromwell, as with Danton in ‘A Place of Greater Safety’, she has created an unlikely hero, but she makes him so fully formed that you can’t help but love him, and feel for him.
The writing is beautiful. There are turns of phrase that stop you in your tracks. And the amount of research she must have done to bring the Tudor world to life so accurately and authentically, from the food to the smells to the dress to the customs, is astonishing.
I particularly appreciated the way the story of Anne of Cleves was told – a woman whose attractiveness and personal hygiene has been horribly falsified. In fact, Mantel treats all her ‘characters’ with honesty and respect, showing how the politics, the treaties, the hierarchies and social systems of the time often forced people to lie, and betray others out of fear.
Whatever you think of Cromwell, he was an extraordinary man – to rise from his humble beginnings to become the second most powerful man in the kingdom, after the king, he must have had incredible intelligence. While we can’t ever really know what he was actually like, ‘The Mirror and the Light’ and the previous two books in the series, provide a fascinating and compelling journey through one of the most interesting periods of history.
I finished this book in absolute floods of tears – I can give no better review or recommendation than that. In my opinion, Mantel is our greatest living writer – and I’d be hard pressed to think of another, living or dead, whose work I would rather read.