The Mirror and the Light

Thoughts on finally finishing the last part of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy

More determined readers finished it long ago, but I only did so yesterday, and thought I would offer some thoughts on Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the final book of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. I suppose I should say “spoiler alert”, but of course there aren’t any spoilers there. We know exactly how the book ends. (And indeed I have blogged about a straight-up biography of Cromwell here.) For Dame Hilary’s readers, it is the journey, not the destination, that matters.

And what a journey it is! The book is well over 850 pages long. To be honest, it really should have been two books. I went into it a huge fan of Dame Hilary and, to anticipate, I come out of it a huge fan still; but my commitment has been sorely tested. There is, inevitably, a mind-boggling amount of detail about the events of Cromwell’s years of power and then his downfall ― indeed, only a sample of the events, as some strands of the historical Cromwell’s story are worn down to barely perceptible threads. But, in addition, the narrative gets lost in meditations ― Cromwell’s or Dame Hilary’s narrator’s, it is characteristically hard to tell; meditations on time and place, on fate and memory, on life and death. It may well be that this sense of being caught in a maze of events, perhaps inconsequential, and reveries, likely fateful ― in a sprawling house full of hidden recesses and secret passages and dark basements filled with secreted relics and not a few skeletons, like Cromwell’s Austin Friars ― is exactly what Dame Hilary wants her reader to feel. (She gives an account of her thoughts on these things in Reith Lectures, which I highly recommend.) But, for all the mastery with which it is delivered, and for all the depth of the thoughts ― to some of which I return below ―, it is sometimes too much.

But, as the story breaks out of the maze at last, in the last 150 or so pages, and speeds up to its inevitable conclusion on Tower Hill, its telling is at a level that few writers can even hope to ever achieve. The reader knows what is coming, of course: the fall, the Tower, the scaffold. Denied the possibility to surprise, Dame Hilary must entrance the reader; she sets herself a seemingly impossible task: how can you tell a man’s execution, especially when her writing, as always, is very much inside her character’s mind, this inimitable hybrid between a third- and a first-person narration that the readers of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies will remember? Well, you and I couldn’t, but Dame Hilary can. In the real Cromwell’s life much remains unknown, caught in the record only as a reflection or a shadow. For Dame Hilary’s readers, it will be impossible to imagine that events unfolded in a way different than the one she conjectures, or indeed that Cromwell’s thoughts were not those she imputes to him.


Let me say something about these thoughts, and others that Dame Hilary explores. I don’t imagine that she meant to write about our current moment in particular. For one thing that would be diminishing what is really a timeless literary achievement. For another, as brilliant as she is at imagining the past, I don’t suppose that Dame Hilary can see the future, and after all she worked on The Mirror and the Light a long time, starting when the world was still a different, and in some ways a more innocent place. So, to repeat, the book is no allegory for the present. Yet so much of it seems to be about 2020, not 1540.

Of course there are meditations on the law. Dame Hilary studied law, and her Cromwell is very much a lawyer. (So are the protagonists of her excellent early novel about the French revolution, A Place of Greater Safety ― Danton, Dumoulin, and Robespierre.) There is this, on retroactive law, and on due process more generally:

A prince cannot be impeded by temporal distinctions: past, present, future. Nor can he excuse the past, just for being over and done. He can’t say, ‘all water under the bridges’; the past is always trickling under the soil, a slow leak you can’t trace. Often, meaning is only revealed retrospectively. The will of God, for instance, is brought to light these days by more skilful translators. As for the future, the king’s desires move swiftly and the law must run to keep up. ‘Bear in mind his Majesty’s remarkable foresight, at the trial of the late queen. He knew the sentence before the verdict was in.’

And process is again all-important at the end, as Cromwell is arrested and charged with fanciful, made-up transgressions: “‘Valentines? Sorcerers? Any jury would laugh you out of court.’ But, he thinks, there will be no jury. There will be no trial. They will pass a bill to put an end to me. I cannot complain of the process. I have used it myself.”

In the end, Dame Hilary’s Cromwell becomes a sort of critical legal scholar:

Rats have eaten the laws of ancient times. They relish fish-glue and vellum; anything that was once alive, they will eat it, and then out of habit, they will eat what is dead; from the margins they chew their way in, to the secret history of England. It is the glory of the men who have worked with Cromwell that instead of merely cursing the vermin they have patched, they have mended, they have stretched a point to replace a gnawed vowel; they have been ready to substitute a digested phrase with a clause that will help the crown. But what has it availed? He has lived by the laws he has made and must be content to die by them. But the law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future. It seems there is no mercy in this world, but a kind of haphazard justice: men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.

Perhaps what we have come to call the Rule of Law is better, then.

Beyond law, there are reflections on power ― princely power, of course, but I think we must ask how they apply to power exercised not only by monarchs but also by electorates or even by online mobs. In the very beginning, at the execution of Anne Boleyn, Cromwell turns on the Duke of Suffolk, who demands to know why he did not force Anne’s father to witness it. He insists that he must protect the King from being needlessly cruel: “[i]f you love the king … , pay some heed to his soul. One day he will stand before God and answer for every subject.” But can a man who uses and abuses the law as Dame Hilary’s Cromwell does truly say that he pays heed to the King’s soul? He does not seem to ask himself these questions, not until it is too late and he realizes that for “ten years I have had my soul flattened and pressed till it’s not the thickness of paper”. But we must.

The sovereign, perhaps, is not like the rest of us:

is a prince even human? If you add him up, does the total make a man? He is made of shards and broken fragments of the past, of prophecies and of the dreams of his ancestral line. The tides of history break inside him, their current threatens to carry him away. His blood is not his own, but ancient blood. His dreams are not his own, but the dreams of all England: the dark forest, deserted heath; the stir in the leaves, the dragon’s footprint; the hand breaking the waters of a lake. His forefathers interrupt his sleep to castigate, to warn, to shake their heads in mute disappointment.

An electorate, a people, is not human either. It too is all these things, perhaps; it too is haunted.

Against power, there is also disobedience, and revolt. The Pilgrimage of Grace is at least a better-sounding name than populism, but is there much difference ― in reality, or in how those in power think about these things? The rebels think, or those who write about them say they think, that

[t]here was a former age, it seems, when wives were chaste and pedlars honest, when roses bloomed at Christmas and every pot bubbled with fat self-renewing capons. If these times are not those times, who is to blame? Londoners, probably. Members of Parliament. Reforming bishops. People who use English to talk to God.

Their leaders tell them that Henry has made himself God. Now if a child falls sick between Truro and Newcastle, they lay it at the king’s door; if a well dries, if the butter spoils, if a bucket leaks: everything that is out of joint with them, from a fall of hailstones to a cricked neck, they blame on the court and council. Their grievances run like streams underground, welling up from the Scots border to Dover, till the whole land is flooded with nonsense.

Finally, a constant theme in The Mirror and the Light, and an especially relevant one just now, is what can be said. After the run-in with Suffolk, Cromwell wonders if he has gone too far in rebuking the duke, but wonders: “if you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?” He also tells his son, shortly thereafter, that “[i]t is not wrong to speak your mind. On selected occasions. They make it painful for you. But you must do it.” Yet as the story unfolds, the selection of the occasions grows ever stricter. He tells the King’s unloved, suspected daughter Mary “to compromise her conscience” to get back in his good graces. He knows that “of course she will despise herself afterwards. But that is the price. … [T]ime will ease the sting of it.” Dogma is uncertain and unsteady, but also deadly.

Corpus Christi is a miracle. It is a mystery. Once consecrated, the host contains your God, alive: the wine is his blood. You cannot hope to understand it but you must believe it. And if you fail to believe it you must keep quiet, because your failure can kill you.

Even the archbishop of Canterbury is afraid:

“[O]nce the bill is passed, none of us will preach on the Blessed Sacrament, its nature. We dare not. We would not know what it is safe to say, without being tripped by the law and cited for heresy.” This is what the king calls concord: an enforced silence.

Henry VIII has disciples in our own time, and people are afraid of them as the Bishop Robert Barnes was afraid of the enforcers of Henry’s shape-shifting orthodoxy: “It’s not his faith, but his temperament that will fail. He is not Luther. Here he stands: till Gardiner knocks him across the room.” Others too feel they “are living on borrowed time, in small rooms, a bag always packed, an ear always alert; … sleep[ing] lightly and some nights hardly at all.” In the end, Cromwell decides that he cannot speak the truth, certainly nothing like the whole truth, at his own turn on the block. For the sake of his son, his nephew, his friends, he speaks little, and says less.

A little earlier, as he awaits his execution, Cromwell imagines Heaven and Hell. “When he pictures Hell he can only think of a cold place, a wasteland, a wharf, a marsh, a landing stage; Walter” ― his abusive father ―

distantly bawling, then the bawling coming nearer. That is how it will be – not pain itself, but the constant apprehension of pain; the constant apprehension of fault, the knowledge that you are going to be punished for something you couldn’t help and didn’t even know was wrong; and the discord in Hell will be constant, repeating for ever and ever, a violent argument being carried on in the next room.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?


Anyway, read the book. Skip the middle 500 pages if you must, but do read it. You won’t be sorry.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law and legal philosophy at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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