The book to see you through the lockdown – the last in the Cromwell trilogy

Review: Vivien Horler

The Mirror & the Light, by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate/ Jonathan Ball)

If there’s ever a book to see you through a 21-day lockdown, I reckon it’s this: Hilary Mantel’s long-awaited final volume of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

The first two were long; Wolf Hall running to 650 pages and Bring up the Bodies to just over 400. The Mirror & the Light is a door stopper of almost 900 pages (and beautifully bound, my trade paperback copy has stood up to more than 10 days of being dragged from couch to bed to garden chair.

Now I’m going to do something I’m not sure I’ve done before: review a book I haven’t finished. But I haven’t read anything else in the past fortnight and it’s time to write my weekly review.

Mantel won the Man Booker Prize for both the two previous volumes, making her one of only three authors to win it twice (the others were South Africa’s JM Coetzee and the Australian Peter Carey). Will Mantel make it a hat-trick?

Who knows if she will – but I think it’s brilliant. I’ve been enjoying it immensely.

Wolf Hall was published in 2009, and Bring Up the Bodies three years later, so we’ve had to wait eight years for this one. There’s been enough time for a hit TV miniseries based on the first two novels, starring the watchable Mark Rylance as Cromwell, Damian Lewis as Henry VIII, and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn.

Before starting The Mirror & the Light I reread Bring Up the Bodies, just to get my eye in, so by the time I finish the last one I will have been immersed in the court of Henry VIII for more than two weeks and 1 300 pages.

Wolf Hall took us from Cromwell’s boyhood in Putney, where he was the son of a quick-with-his-fists blacksmith and brewer, to his service for Henry’s adviser, Cardinal Wolsey, and after Wolsey’s death, his service to the king.

In the 1520s Henry has been married to Katherine for around 20 years, but has no male heir, just a daughter, the Princess Many. Now the beautiful, young and quick-witted Anne Boleyn has caught his eye, and he is desperate to marry her and have a son.

But in Catholic England there is no such thing as divorce, and so up steps clever and wily Thomas Cromwell – a man the king calls “as cunning as a bag of serpents” – to see that Henry gets his way, despite the outrage of the political establishment, parliament and the church.

Mantel creates the sweep of the Tudor court, the break with Rome and the intrigues that swirl around them, but also writes with sly humour. Take this encounter before Henry marries Anne, between Cromwell and Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister and famously a former lover of the king.

Mary says of Anne: “She’s selling herself by the inch. The gentlemen all say you are advising her. She wants a present in cash for every advance above the knee.”

Cromwell replies: “Not like you, Mary. One push backwards and, good girl, here’s fourpence.”

Mary laughs. “Well. You know. If kings are doing the pushing. Anne has very long legs. By the time he comes to her secret part he will be bankrupt.”

Wolf Hall sees Anne married and ends with the execution of Thomas More, who will not accept the king as head of the church.

Bring Up the Bodies sees the cooling of the relationship between the king and Anne, after her failure to give him a son and secure the Tudor line. He wants to be rid of her and her waspish tongue, and has his eye on quiet Jane Seymour. Cromwell is the king’s man and will see he gets what he wants. Anne is accused to having affairs, including one with her brother Lord Rochford, is tried and beheaded.

The Mirror & the Light sees Henry happily married, with a son on the way. But Henry is ageing, and plagued by a bad leg. Cromwell himself is getting on and is haunted by his past. Then days after the birth of the little Prince Edward, Jane Seymour dies. Now the future of the Tudor line depends on the uncertain health of an infant. Henry needs a new wife, and it’s Cromwell job to help him find one.

And that is as far as I’ve got.

Mantel is a wonderful writer, going from the broad brush strokes to the intimate. She knows everything about the Tudor court, from the way the land is governed to details of food and fabric, yet she imparts all this knowledge lightly. And her language is fitting: formal and just slightly old-fashioned, yet never difficult for the modern reader.

I think this is a brilliant series of books – absorbing interesting, and at times a real page turner.




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