Review Book Club: Hall or nothing?
01 May, 2020 — By Jean Moorcroft Wilson
Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell
IT is a measure of Hilary Mantel’s extraordinary achievement that I finished the 883 pages of The Mirror and the Light, the concluding novel of her Wolf Hall trilogy, wanting more. When Cromwell finally goes to the scaffold, I felt deprived both of a person and a world.
Mantel’s daring reinterpretation of Cromwell turns him from someone known mainly as one of history’s “baddies” into a far more complex, more sympathetic character, whose good qualities balance, if not outweigh, his less attractive traits.
While taking into account his undoubtedly ambitious, manipulative side, she also portrays him as merciful to the victims of Henry VIII as he searches ruthlessly for a queen who will give him a male heir to the throne – his first wife, Katherine of Aragon and their daughter Mary; his second wife, Anne Boleyn; then Jane Seymour, whose marriage to Henry opens this book. Cromwell even tries to soften the blow for Henry’s fourth wife, the German Anne of Cleves, when she is summarily dispatched in favour of Kathryn Howard during the course of this volume.
A devoted family man still mourning his wife and two young daughters killed in one of London’s recurrent plagues, he watches lovingly over his surviving son, Gregory, his orphaned nephew, Richard, and protégé, Rafe, known as “Cromwell’s boys”. In the case of women particularly, he has to remind himself, in the new roles to which Henry has elevated him by volume three: “Have no qualms, my Lord Privy Seal; Baron Cromwell, do not fail. You must not soften now.”
He is a man of many parts. Physically strong, he is mentally more than a match for his many enemies until, towards the end, a rare bout of illness and absence at court allows his foes to bring about his fall. Despite his lowly birth, he is at home at all levels of society, “courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard”; and though deprived of any formal education, formidably knowledgeable: “He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors from Pluto to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.”
By centring her story on Cromwell and presenting him as humane and free-thinking, a believer in kindness, tolerance and education, rather than the brutal, violent man portrayed in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Mantel has found a way to reimagine the only-too-familiar tale of Henry and his unfortunate wives. While Henry wants a son so desperately that he is willing to defy the Pope, in her version it is Cromwell who oversees the introduction of a Bible and worship in English and so is the true author of England’s independence from Rome.
The patchy information about that period of history which allows Mantel to offer her own interpretation, also has its drawbacks, however, and she has to do her best with hints and possibilities.
“The only requirement in this respect,” she argues, “is for conjecture to be plausible and grounded in the best facts one can get.”
And since Henry and the Tudors have become, in her words, “the great national soap opera in England”, their story so well known that we see it as having “a kind of inevitable, predetermined quality about it”, she needed to find a way of telling it again in a way that would create it afresh.
Having found herself simply “launched into the present tense” in the very first scene of the trilogy when the 15-year-old Cromwell is lying half dead on the cobbles from his father’s blows – a memory of which concludes this superbly structured book – she stayed with it to the end as a way for her to “capture the sound track inside Cromwell’s head and the immediacy of his experience”, like a modern camcorder.
The use of the present tense, by forbidding hindsight, propels the reader forward as she hopes, “making it new, just as it was, in every unfolding moment, for the players”.
Another striking aspect of the style is the use of memorable imagery – the initials of Henry and Anne Boleyn, the queen he believes has cuckolded him, are “fondly intertwined, like snakes breeding” – and telling detail, both of which draw us further into Cromwell’s universe. This is intensely, densely alive, with the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, the texture of the clothes and furnishing of the Tudor world vividly present. At the same time the main themes of the book – the struggle for power and revenge, the capriciousness of fortune, the position of women, the importance of class, loyalty and the lack of it, the significance of the past itself – are forwarded.
This is not just a novel about sumptuous clothes and settings, with some dramatic action to liven things up, but a serious exploration of an important turning point in European history. Take, for example, a meal between Cromwell and the Spanish Ambassador, Chapuys.
All four courses are described in sensuous detail: “The eels come in, presented in two fashions: salted in an almond sauce, and baked with the juice of an orange. There is a spinach tart, green as the summer evening, flavoured with nutmeg and a splash of rosewater. The silver gleams; napkins are folded into the shapes of Tudor roses; the coverpanes on each plate are worked with silver garlands.”
But at the same time there is serious political jousting going on between the two diners. Even as he unfolds his napkin, his mouth watering in anticipation, Chapuys, after a courteous “Bon appetit” tells Cromwell, “I’ve had a letter”.
The characters of both men, their mental agility, their appreciation of the good things of life, their humour, also emerge. As if this were not more than enough to interest and involve her reader, Mantel adds a dazzling wit and pronounced sense of humour to the mix: when Thomas Wyatt, whom Cromwell has saved from execution, tells him, with only a little irony: “I shall follow you as the gosling its mother. Or as Dante followed Virgil. Even to the underworld”, Cromwell replies with his customary dry humour: “I doubt I’ll be going further than the south coast this summer. Perhaps down to the Isle of Wight.”
It took Mantel three years to complete the second volume in her trilogy, Bring up the Bodies (2012), but eight more to produce The Mirror and the Light. “You are trying to bring home every story mark,” she explains, “pick up every metaphor, to have every resonance from inside the first two books humming through the third. You have to carry all that resonance inside you and hope it gets on the page.”
That it does cannot be doubted. The question now is, can Mantel win the Man Booker prize with it for an unprecedented third time?
• The Mirror and the Light. By Hilary Mantel. Fourth Estate
• Jean Moorcroft Wilson is a biographer whose subjects include Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas and Robert Graves
In testing times, which novels do writers find themselves returning to as a comfort-read? Kate Griffin (above), author of the Kitty Peck thriller series, suggests:
Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans. Against a lovingly drawn backdrop of the Second World War and the London Blitz, a cast of wonderful characters fight different battles on their own home fronts. Clever, funny and heartbreaking.
Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. England’s answer to Scarlet O’Hara, low-born Amber St Clare schemes her way to fortune in Winsor’s magnificently detailed Restoration London. (Spoiler: includes notably gruesome plague scenes.)
The Bryant and May books by Christopher Fowler. In this gem of a series, London’s most unlikely and elderly detective duo (and their equally unusual colleagues at the Peculiar Crimes Unit) pit their wits against elaborately baroque plots to solve fiendishly dark crimes. Eccentric, erudite, amusing and utterly engrossing.
I, Claudius by Robert Graves. Written as a first-person narrative of a particularly bloody and debauched episode of Roman history, for me this is the go-to novel if you want to live and breathe a period, its people and its politics.
An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. In 1663, Restoration Oxford is trembling on the brink of scientific enlightenment while shadowed by superstition, political upheaval and religious division. A vivid, complex, satisfying, multi-layered novel about telling the truth.