Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Wednesday, March 18, 2020: Maximum Shelf: The Mirror & the Light

Henry Holt & Company: The Mirror & the Light (Wolf Hall Trilogy #3) by Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt & Company: The Mirror & the Light (Wolf Hall Trilogy #3) by Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt & Company: The Mirror & the Light (Wolf Hall Trilogy #3) by Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt & Company: The Mirror & the Light (Wolf Hall Trilogy #3) by Hilary Mantel

The Mirror & the Light

by Hilary Mantel

The Mirror & the Light is the long-awaited conclusion to Hilary Mantel's magnum opus, a trilogy of historical novels begun with Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) The Mirror & the Light manages the daunting task of providing a satisfying, if deeply melancholy, account of real-life protagonist Thomas Cromwell's final years in the court of King Henry VIII. Over the course of three sizable books (this one weighs in at almost 800 pages), Mantel has established one of the largest and most memorable cast of characters outside of a fantasy epic like Game of Thrones. Even deceased characters like Cardinal Wolsey and the executed Anne Boleyn loom large in Cromwell's memory, as the many deaths Cromwell has seen or played a part in increasingly intrude on his thoughts. The Cromwell of The Mirror & the Light is older and more tired; of the trilogy, this book is consequently the most concerned with mortality. It's as stuffed with political machinations as the first two, but it seems ever more meditative and death-haunted as Cromwell approaches his inevitable end.

The Mirror & the Light includes many interesting characters, but, as ever, Mantel's protagonist is the most compelling; here, she solidifies her Cromwell's place as one of the most richly drawn characters in modern literature. Cromwell's sometimes ruthless pragmatism continues to be a fascinating lens through which to view the tumultuous events of King Henry VIII's reign. The novel begins immediately after the execution of Anne Boleyn (which concluded the previous book) with Cromwell's deadpan reaction: "Once the queen's head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner. The morning's circumstances are new and there are no rules to guide us." In the aftermath of Boleyn's death and Jane Seymour's ascendance, Cromwell's power approaches its apex. Seymour says: "Lord Cromwell is the government, and the church as well." Despite Cromwell's title and increasing wealth, he is ever aware of how close to the precipice he remains in a court dominated by shifting alliances, foreign intrigues and the unpredictable whims of the king.

A conflict dominates the early part of the novel, reminiscent of that between Cromwell and Thomas More at the end of Wolf Hall. This time, it concerns Mary, the product of the king's marriage to Katherine of Aragon, now declared invalid. Cromwell must convince Mary to accept the king's judgment regarding her exclusion from the line of succession. Yet again, it is a battle between unbending principle and Cromwell's utilitarianism. Despite his ruthless reputation, Cromwell risks his own position in convincing Mary to accede, thereby saving her life and upholding a promise he made to Katherine. When he is questioned about his choice, he thinks: "That's the point of a promise.... It wouldn't have any value, if you could see what it would cost you when you made it." Cromwell is such a fascinating, complicated character because, for all his hard-nosed realism, he works hard to save those he can.

The controversies and emergencies that occupy Cromwell over the course of the book come one after another, and they are so engrossing that readers may forget that Cromwell must eventually arrive at his grim, historically determined fate. He buries himself in work and, like Cromwell, the book is perfectly happy to luxuriate in the details. We follow Cromwell as he dissolves monasteries; writes letter after letter; attempts to end the exploitation of holy relics; designs and builds; tries to pass legislation to help the poor; and much more. Mantel creates a phenomenal time machine that makes arguments about theology and government seem as radical and urgent as they must have felt at the time.

Even as Mantel's England charges into a new era, though, the past asserts itself: "A prince cannot be impeded by temporal distinctions: past, present, future. Nor can he excuse the past, for being over and done... the past is always trickling under the soil, a slow leak you can't trace. Often, meaning is only revealed retrospectively." As the plot hurtles forward, Cromwell increasingly looks to the past, reflecting on his childhood and his long, bloody journey from a commoner living under the thumb of his violent father to the most powerful minister in England. Though Cromwell cannot predict that his downfall is coming, the final volume nevertheless communicates an elegiac mood. It is here that the ornate writing is at its most beautiful:

"Don't look back, he had told the king; yet he too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades.... You look back into your past and say, is this story mine; this land?... Is this my life, or my neighbour's conflated with mine, or a life I have dreamed and prayed for; is this my essence, twisting into a taper's flame, or have I slipped the limits of myself--slipped into eternity, like honey from a spoon?"

Mantel's avid fans will find the ambition and skill brought to bear in this final volume astounding. King Henry VIII and his court have been much written about, yet Mantel's interpretation is distinct in a thousand ways. Cromwell is an unforgettable character, and some readers might find it bittersweet to reach the final pages of his story. As with the best novels, The Mirror & the Light leaves behind the complicated, sad-happy feeling of coming to the end of a treasured experience. --Hank Stephenson

Holt, $30, hardcover, 784p., 9780805096606, March 10, 2020

Henry Holt & Company: The Wolf Hall Trilogy by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel: Cromwell's Final Years

(photo: Els Zweerink)

Hilary Mantel is the author of 10 previous novels, as well as her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. The Mirror & the Light is the long-awaited final book in her Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, a series of historical novels charting the rise and fall of Cromwell in the court of King Henry VIII. In the Man Booker-winning first volumes, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012), Cromwell gained Henry's favor by helping to arrange his marriage to Anne Boleyn, as well as her subsequent execution. The Mirror & the Light (Holt, March 10, 2020) covers the final years of Cromwell's life and the complicated machinations that eventually led to his downfall.

Readers with a sense of history will know how Cromwell's story ends. Did that potential foreknowledge affect any writing decisions you made?

They know how it ends, but they don't know why. Also, surprise isn't the only tool in the writer's kit. Foreknowledge can operate well for you. It builds a sense of dread.

Did the research for The Mirror & the Light pose any special challenges compared to the previous books?

As Cromwell becomes a greater man, the range of his work and the number of his contacts expands. So the documentation becomes more complex, and simply keeping track of the personnel poses a challenge. Only a fraction of what the writer knows is going to get on to the page, but the more you can know, the more you want to know.

It seemed to me that The Mirror & the Light offers more insight into Cromwell's past than either of the previous books. Was there any particular ground regarding his character that you wanted to make sure you delved into in the concluding volume?

We know very little of his early life, but the decision to fictionalise more of his past seemed appropriate--as if under the pressure of events, the mechanisms of repression fail, and he must recast his own story. It is also the story of an evolving relationship. The most important person in his life is the king--and both king and minister are changing, getting older, maybe less hopeful. They are hardened by the challenges of survival, and confronting questions of legacy.

Speaking for myself, at least, it's difficult not to come out of the trilogy feeling like a Cromwell partisan. Would you like it if people came away from this trilogy feeling that Cromwell ultimately made the best of many impossible situations?

That's my feeling exactly. His whole career ought to be impossible, but he made it work through force of intellect and character. I don't deny that he was hard and ruthless--if he hadn't been, we'd never have heard of him. But I think he's interesting and in many ways admirable, in his ingenuity, his spirit, his appetite for complexity. As I see it, his errors were forced errors, and he was destroyed by an international situation that moved against him, rather than by any individual misjudgement. Other than the king's, of course.

I think when Wolf Hall came out it was thought of by many as a rehabilitation of Cromwell as a historical figure. With the trilogy finished, are there other aspects of this historical period that you hope to have reframed in the popular imagination?

I don't think of it as rehabilitation so much as a re-examination and re-focusing, and an exercise in sifting out some of the debris that's fallen into the historical record and been carried down the years. I hope that I can encourage my readers to be more enquiring about the received version of any era--you don't have to believe the first thing you're told.

One thing that your books take into account is the degree of physical pain Henry and others experienced on a daily basis. Do you think the omnipresence of this kind of pain changes his perspective in a way healthy readers today might struggle to understand?

Historians debate whether and why Henry's character changed in later life, and what exactly ailed him; it matters, because the personality of the ruler is a vital factor when one man has so much power. His illnesses (certainly in later life, outside the scope of my story) probably had an endocrinological component. But after an accident in 1536, he had an injury which caused him chronic pain, and made him inactive, so he lost his fitness and his admired athlete's body. Medicine of the time couldn't help him much. Even today there's a limit to what we can do about chronic pain. My less fortunate readers will understand that it doesn't make you a better person; I ask the pain-free to try to imagine it.

So much is going on at any one moment in The Mirror & the Light, and yet the story remains accessible. How do you balance capturing the complexity of history as it actually unfolded with accommodating the difficulty readers might have in following the dozens of characters, their relationships, events unfolding on top of each other, etc.? Are there particular strategies that you've honed when it comes to making the narrative accessible to readers?

I think there's a technique every novelist learns over the years, of dipping out of the book to become the reader, and running a check on what must be grasped at every stage. You have to assume an attentive reader--otherwise you're failing comprehensively--and you have to imagine that person to be at least as intelligent as you are, but less knowledgeable on this one topic. You're aiming at a level of complexity that will keep the reader nimble and alert, and also to engage head and heart, simultaneously. Pacing matters; sometimes I want to give the reader a breathing space, a passage where they don't have to learn anything, just dwell with the images and sounds. So I think it's valid to bring the politics to a halt while we admire a bowl of plums together.

What does it feel like to have finished the Cromwell trilogy after years spent writing in that world?

The TV version is in development now, and I am working towards a theatre production--so it will be my world for a long time yet. --Hank Stephenson

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