It is a telling irony that a historical novel could be the quintessential literary work of the post-truth era. Perhaps no other novel better captures the malleability of truth than The Mirror and the Light, the third and final instalment in Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies captured this too, of course, but it is felt more powerfully now because the victim of fake news and alternative facts is none other than Thomas Cromwell himself.
Here Cromwell finds himself constrained by an increasingly volatile reality: rebel armies are rising against the king, France and Spain are conspiring, and Henry is dissatisfied with Cromwell’s choice of Anne of Cleves as his new queen. But it is this novel’s closing sequence that forms the trilogy’s most stunning achievement, as the full force of the state machinery Thomas has engineered is brought to bear against him and, as we always knew would happen, he goes to the executioner’s block. The slipperiness of truth, for so long Thomas’s greatest weapon, has now become his foe.
It is testament to Mantel’s powers that Cromwell, who, we are reminded, has killed (directly and indirectly) many innocent people, has become something of a sympathetic character. Typically anti-heroes depend on first-person intimacy and linguistic gusto to pull us along: think of Alex in A Clockwork Orange, Humbert Humbert in Lolita or John Self in Money. Mantel, however, has opened Cromwell to us through subtler means. Somehow he seems both the most realised of characters and an enigma. Cromwell emerges like one of the spirits in the mystical visions he is prone to (accounts of which provide some of the novel’s most beautiful and haunting passages). This perhaps makes it all sound rather serious, which it is, but Mantel can be very funny too and a wry humour simmers throughout. Henry’s councillors panic when Bishop Sampson suggests that all sex is sinful: ‘“Even with their wives?” Suffolk looks stricken … “Bollocks,” Norfolk says. “Cromwell, is that in the scriptures?”’ And Cromwell imagines Henry figuring himself as God’s publicist and hype man: ‘the way he’s set him up, got his big book translated, made him the common talk.’
For all its virtues, though, The Mirror and the Light is a notably flawed novel, inferior to its predecessors. Size is an issue here. At almost nine hundred pages, it labours under the weight of its material. The bulk is somewhat justified: the shift in Henry and Cromwell’s relationship is all the more affecting for being gradual. Knowing Cromwell’s fate before it comes to pass, the reader might at several points think ‘this is going to be it’, only for things to continue on. The problem is that there is something matter-of-fact about the narrative, moments and events being hoarded like in the most exhaustive of diaries. It is marred in places by a dependence on exposition (often masked, rather awkwardly, as interior monologue), and there is a feeling that things are happening simply because they can, rather than because they are essential. Here at last boredom begins to creep into the trilogy.
That the novel largely eschews lyricism also contributes to the sense of fatigue. There have been gradually diminishing returns in terms of the prose across the trilogy, from the baroque Wolf Hall to the tauter Bring Up the Bodies and now the crisp and clean – but sometimes merely plain – The Mirror and the Light. Perhaps this is the point: Cromwell’s material riches are ever growing, but his complicity in the abuses of the regime and the moral compromises he makes are spiritually impoverishing. It must be said that Mantel remains sublime on the physical – on the ‘dead skulls’ of buried knights ‘rattling inside feathered helms’ and Cromwell imagining ‘the word of God, damp and slimy, slipping from the page and pooling on the stone flags’. But there are also a few clunkers and clichés: night covers London ‘like a blanket’, Jane Seymour’s eyes are like ‘deep ponds on a still day’ and we see flames ‘licking and kissing the twilight’.
Over the course of these novels Mantel has developed a style all her own, imitated by many, bettered by none. Its success lies in its ability not just to evoke the immediacy and tangibility of the Tudor world but also to give us the feeling that we are with Thomas Cromwell at all times. There is an almost televisual aspect to the way Mantel offers a segmented, episodic approach to plot, and the trilogy has something of the fullness of the best long-form TV dramas. There are many genuinely dramatic and suspenseful scenes: Cromwell meeting his secret (and fictional) love-child; the farcical moment when he arranges a marriage between Elizabeth Seymour and his son, only for her to think that he is offering himself up; and an unforgettable and disturbing episode in which a young Cromwell murders and disposes of the body of a boy. Here Mantel slips into the second-person, as though we are there committing the act ourselves: ‘You bend and pull out the knife. Something comes with it: a loop of his tripes.’
What Mantel does with point of view across the series is a monument to the novel form and its crowning innovation, free indirect style. But the narrative perspective has become almost too close to Cromwell in this final instalment, and the effacement of the intervening authorial voice too complete. Mantel cedes authority to Cromwell’s point of view and strips the prose of those qualifying flourishes and patterns that make the first two novels so rich in effect. The narrative has become a transparent window onto Cromwell’s world when what we need is a mirror and a light.
Still, in the greatest moments of the novel, as in the earlier two, a profoundly ethical sensibility is coiled and loaded at sentence-level, as when Cromwell thinks of the cart that removed the corpses from the Boleyn purge and Mantel describes a ‘boy’s hand tumbling out, as if wanting to be held’. It is in moments like this that the prose, unobtrusively and without moralism, evaluates by sheer virtue of its particularity and empathy. Given that we already know Cromwell’s fate, Mantel’s ability to make his end as gripping and moving as anything in 21st-century literature is astounding. The Mirror and the Light is a commendable and imperfect novel that saves its best for last.