Friday, October 2, 2020

Review: The Mirror & the Light

From The Mirror & the Light, by Hilary Mantel:

Open quoteOnce 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 Mirror & the Light
The Mirror & the Light is the third volume of Hilary Mantel's life of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of Henry VIII. It covers the four years from the execution of Anne Boleyn to his own downfall, with all the court intrigues in between. It's a masterfully written view of England in mid-1500s. B+

Grade: B+

This is the story of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII. But it's not just a dry history of great men. It's a story told with great use of language that evokes Tudor England, with sentences like "The evening, dove-like, is settling itself to rest." And "Rumours of Tyndale’s death seep through England as smoke leaks through thatch." And "He pictures the spire rising three hundred feet, holding up the Lincolnshire sky, clouds draped about it like wet washing." Writing like this in the first two volumes of this trilogy won Hilary Mantel two Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

The novel is written in the third person, but always from Cromwell's viewpoint. The reader sees and hears everything Cromwell does and nothing else. The reader listens in to Cromwell's own thinking, but no one else's. This makes the novel intimate, with Cromwell the unquestioned star, but as history, it leaves the reader wanting to know more of the mind of, say, Henry himself.

Henry comes across as a vain, volatile monarch. Cromwell's nephew Christophe says to Cromwell, soon after Anne Boleyn dies and Henry takes Jane Seymour as his next bride, "With this king one needs a reversible garment. One never knows, is it dying or dancing?"

Cromwell comes across as Henry's smart, competent, loyal administrator. As Cromwell's service to the king leads to his steady rise in power and wealth, it also leads to jealousy among the nobles seeking Henry's favor themselves. Cromwell was a commoner, the son of a blacksmith from Putney. That the king raised him up, even naming him as the 1st Earl of Essex, was the cause of bitter rivalry in the class conscious court. The sharp knives (not just figuratively) lead Cromwell to tell his chief cook why security at his household is so tight: "The times being what they are, a man may enter the gate as your friend and change sides while he crosses the courtyard."

The affairs of state that occupied Cromwell's time after Anne Boleyn's downfall, which Cromwell orchestrated at the king's behest, included countering an alliance between the King of France and the Hapsburg Emperor, which threatened to leave the King of England the odd man out. One part of Cromwell's strategy involved arranging Henry's next marriage to Anne of Cleves. That match was doomed from the start, for which Henry blamed Cromwell. Henry also relied on Cromwell to lead the Reformation in England, which made enemies for Cromwell among the many Catholics in England. In the end, it all became unsustainable, leading to a loss of confidence in Cromwell by Henry himself. The rest, as they say, is history.

The first two volumes of this trilogy won Man Booker Prizes for Fiction for Hilary Mantel, but the third volume was overlooked. The research and writing is the same as volumes awarded prizes, but the nature of the story changed, making it a harder story to tell. In the first two volumes, Cromwell is on the rise, the mover and shaker, so telling the story from his point of view puts the reader at the center of the action. The third volume climaxes with Cromwell's fall, a conspiracy that takes place largely behind Cromwell's back, so the reader doesn't get to see that story, only Cromwell's gradual recognition of his deteriorating position at court. The impact of the story is lessened because of this choice by Mantel.

The steady procession of fallen nobles to the gallows all during Henry's reign makes one appreciate that, as bad as America's own politics are today, at least executions are not a regular outcome of political intrigue. We're different, you tell yourself. And you're right as far as that goes. But human nature hasn't changed. Change the name and this passage could be ripped from today's newspapers: "You will see Henry, profound in deception, take an ambassador's arm and charm him. Lying gives him a deep and subtle pleasure, so deep and subtle he does not know he is lying; he thinks he is the most truthful of princes."

Volume 1: Wolf Hall
Volume 2: Bring Up the Bodies

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