The astonishing English novelist Hilary Mantel has completed her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell and his relationship with King Henry VIII in “The Mirror and The Light”. I am in absolute awe of her vast achievement in this third and final novel, as I was of the first two novels, which both won the prestigious Booker Prize (I’d be amazed if this third novel doesn’t win that prize, as well). The novel is told exclusively from the point of view of Cromwell, a man who came from extreme poverty and rose to be the King’s premier confidant and, to use a term from today, chief of staff.
Henry VIII must have been no bargain to work for; mercurial and often adolescent, but intuitively smart and brilliant for selecting Cromwell and repeatedly promoting him, both within the government and socially, so in this third novel Cromwell becomes Lord Cromwell as well as an Earl. Most of The King’s other advisors resent or even hate Cromwell; snobbery is often at the root of this dislike, and English snobbery is an amazingly powerful thing. Old families abound in this novel, some of whom find King Henry VIII a parvenu, and long for the days of the Plantagenet kings, who preceded the Tudors. The constant machinations at Court are mind boggling; Cromwell must both anticipate the King’s mood and whims while letting the King assume Cromwell’s ideas are his. Mantel admirably reminds the reader through Cromwell that Kings and princes think differently than everyone else, as they believe their reign is mandated by God, or the gods/fate. And one of Cromwell’s ongoing jobs is to find appropriate wives for this most mercurial of Kings, as these wives must bring wealth or political alliance or both for the King. England, at that time, was not yet a great world power.
“The Mirror and The Light” (King Henry VIII is considered to be both in his royalty) begins with the beheading of Anne Boleyn, the second of the King’s 8 wives, because of her alleged infidelities (five men , all allegedly lovers, including her brother, all framed, also lose their heads). It’s a great beginning of the novel, which, of course, will end with the beheading of Cromwell himself, who’s displeased the King with the choice of his fourth wife, Anna of Cleves (a German state), whom the King finds unattractive, and whose marriage is never consummated (The King’s inability to “please a woman” is mentioned throughout the novel). And, of course, Henry is wanting a male heir to continue the Tudor line; he’s had two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, by his first two wives). The reader will be fascinated by Cromwell’s inability to see the machinations of Mary behind the scenes, she who will eventually reign and try to bring England back into Catholicism. By demanding to be King of Church and State, Henry has alienated The King of France and The Holy Roman Emperor as well as The Pope; Cromwell has to keep spies all over France, Italy and The Low Countries to see who may be plotting against the King, and The King of Scotland, married to Henry’s sister, is also a constant threat. (The reader may occasionally be reminded of all those “begats” in The Old Testament while reading this novel; Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk make constant appearances, and the North of England also tries to break away from the country:) imagine all that Cromwell was obliged to do to keep all these balls in the air, while concurrently ridding England of monasteries and nunneries from its Catholic days; those lands will become revenue for the King and also given as gifts to The King’s allies, creating a new (then) nobility of land (thus landed gentry) in England, from which English snobbery still emanates.
As Cromwell begins to age, the reader begins to see him slip, and he misses danger coming from under his own roof , from men whose careers he has made and whom he has (mostly) trusted. Cromwell has one son and a nephew; he’s widowed early and his two daughters died in the same plague as his wife did; he never remarries. Mantel gives him a daughter whom he meets late in his life, based on rumors of the era but never totally proven. Cromwell is generous with his people; he takes in stray street boys who live in his house as they remind him of himself when young and poor, and Christophe, one of them, will curse Henry VIII as Cromwell is beheaded, magnificently written by Mantel. Mantel is, incidentally, a fabulous writer; her description of the plums which Cromwell has hybridized sounds so much like Proust’s descriptions of asparagus that one suspects these are deliberate literary allusions
I must admit that I had to put the novel down for hours at a time as my mind needed rest from the machinations of Court: imagine what Cromwell, who never once had a day off in ten years, had to live with…Some of his enemies are clear all along, and he manages to hold them at bay, but in the end, he has no friends, no troops (most Dukes etc. of the day could call forth their own). He becomes fabulously rich but all is removed in the end: King Henry, in the end, treats Cromwell almost as one of his wives: he turns on virtually everyone in this novel, particularly those closest to him, and, in the end, he has no male heir. And England falls apart after Cromwell’s death, but the reader will understand that Thomas Cromwell has laid the groundwork for the country that England eventually becomes in most of the best senses and ways. Mantel makes Cromwell a sympathetic character, as she often does Henry VIII: when Machiavelli’s “The Prince” makes a brief appearance in the novel, its strictures to the Florentine King about means justifying ends couldn’t be clearer. Cromwell’s death in the end becomes truly tragic; Mantel keeps it short, as the time between his sudden arrest and death was historically also brief. That ending of the novel is intensely moving, and Hillary Mantel has completed this trilogy with this amazing third and last masterpiece.