Magazine May 18, 2020, Issue

The Contradiction at the Heart of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light

A display of The Mirror and the Light at a bookstore in London, England, March 4, 2020 (Hannah McKay/Reuters)
The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt, 784 pp., $30)

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was a high-cultural phenomenon. The novel, published in 2009, retold the story of the downfall of Sir (Saint) Thomas More and the rise of Thomas Cromwell: A Man for All Seasons, but with the good guy and bad guy reversed. In Mantel’s telling, More was a religious fanatic, an embodiment of the deliberate, persecuting medieval darkness, while Cromwell was the new man, an omni-talented, self-made son of a blacksmith whose virtues were above all else moderation and practicality. Written with a brilliant combination of arresting detail and swift movement, the novel won the Man Booker Prize (the “British Pulitzer”), as did its 2012 sequel Bring Up the Bodies. The books spawned a Royal Shakespeare Company play and a BBC miniseries and became a worldwide sensation among the serious set.

Then — nothing. The third book in what was announced as a trilogy was supposed to come out in 2018. Then, 2017 brought rumors of delay . . . 2018 . . . 2019 . . . The literati thought they knew why. While the Wolf Hall novels are fiction, their characters are, of course, historical figures. And Thomas Cromwell, after triumphing over More and Anne Boleyn, overseeing the dissolution of the monasteries, procuring Henry VIII’s marriages to his third and fourth wives, and significantly advancing the cause of Protestantism in England, was executed by orders of that monarch on July 28, 1540. If Mantel finished her trilogy, in other words, she was going to have to kill her hero.

Now the third book, The Mirror and the Light, is here. Read page by page — that is to say, taking the measure of the book by the quality of the prose — it is another masterpiece, a worthy successor to its forebears. There are some reasons, however, to think that the rumors were right — that the death of Cromwell presented a challenge for Mantel. Of the novel’s 754 pages, there is not a hint of trouble for Cromwell until around the 600th, and the crisis leading to his death does not break until about the 700th. This would not be a problem were there some other narrative arc Mantel was intent on tracing. But there isn’t, really. The Mirror and the Light, unlike Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, does not have a central conflict. In Wolf Hall, the clash with More and the struggle to secure Henry’s divorce and remarriage gave a narrative coherence to the work. In Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell squared off in a zero-sum contest — death or absolute power — with Anne Boleyn. The Mirror and the Light begins where Bring Up the Bodies left off, just after the execution of Boleyn and her supposed lovers. Henry VIII, now a widower, is free to marry Jane Seymour, and does. Cromwell, having brought this state of affairs to pass, is master secretary (and soon lord privy seal), in fact if not in title the most powerful man in England.

And then . . . very little happens, especially for the first 200-odd pages. There is no single big rival; none of the small ones can do much more than nip at Cromwell’s heels. Even when Henry’s religious reforms (and the revolt they inspire, the Pilgrimage of Grace) begin to take center stage, the narrative is strangely mushy. These structural problems reveal a deeper weakness. In order to understand what it is, however, we must first detour into some of Mantel’s strengths.

First and foremost, she is a master of stream-of-consciousness narrative. This device can be annoying even in highly regarded authors because it is hard to control, leading to confusion or pretentious vapidity. But never with Mantel. She steers ever surely, guiding us between Cromwell’s mind and the outside world so as to increase our understanding (and enjoyment) of both. This discursive talent has a pleasantly sharp contrast in her gift for aphorism; she can pull the threads of the world she has spun into one tight, memorable observation with a suddenness that takes one’s breath away. And closely related to her narrative style is Mantel’s control of the degree of omniscience of her third-person narrative voice, and the wideness of the lens she gives it (what’s called “free indirect style”). This technique allows her to narrow the view to the cramped confines of her protagonist’s human understanding — a move that works particularly well in the lead-up to his arrest — or widen it to a near-universal grasp of human affairs. But always, always this narrative voice is identified with Thomas Cromwell.

And that brings us to the big gap in this work, narratively and conceptually. We have 754 pages of stream-of-consciousness prose, flitting from Cromwell’s mind to the world at large and back again. We learn his thoughts on his friends, enemies, and servants. We are brought up short by aphorisms on the nature of kingship and on the education of his son. We wander into pleasurable discursions on tapestries, cooking, and the banks of Florence. But when it comes to Cromwell’s religious beliefs, his core convictions on the main issue of his time, we are shut out. Often, there’s internal silence. At best, we are told but not shown. And in consequence, we never feel it.

The tell is that, with one possible exception, we never hear Cromwell pray. Like Moses in the desert, the early Protestants — of whom Cromwell was one — spoke to God face to face. Along with reading the Bible in their native tongues, this defined their internal experience: They had stripped away priests, saints, and sacraments, and gloried in this direct communion. With Mantel’s Cromwell, though, we hear that he wakes up early and “says his prayers” — but we never hear the prayer. We learn that he attended services, but never see them through his eyes. We hear him address a dead cardinal and live servants in his head, but never God. Similarly, Cromwell describes his political actions as advancing “the cause of the gospel,” and risks his life and position to see the scriptures translated into English — but he never, to our eyes, reads them.

The lack of any account of Cromwell’s religious beliefs is a problem not only because the novel spans four of the most formative years of the English Reformation — during which time Cromwell serves as “Vicegerent of the church under God and the king” — but also because it makes his actions at times unintelligible. Mantel’s Cromwell is smarter, more pragmatic, and more cunning than all the fanatics, fop-headed aristocrats, and would-be Machiavels that he runs up against. It is not credible that he would not see the crisis that leads to his downfall coming and adapt to it pragmatically: trimming his sails to accommodate Henry VIII’s desire not to get too far from traditional Catholic practices, forging temporary alliances with the conservative nobles that come for his head, taking them in and then casting them down as he had so many other, more dangerous foes before. Unless. Unless he had a damn good reason not to, a point of principle on which he would not yield even at the cost of his life.

And Cromwell does see all of this coming. At one crucial point, he contemplates the necessary deals to be cut — and rejects them. He reflects on King Henry’s dissatisfaction with his recently formed marriage with Anne of Cleves: “It would be hard to free him but not impossible. It would be a victory to Norfolk and his ilk, it would be encouragement to the papists and an end to the new Europe. How often do you get the chance to reconfigure the map?” (The “new Europe” is an alliance between Protestant German princes and England that Cromwell had worked to cement with the marriage.) Cromwell declines to act. A little later, a one-time friend comes around to advise the same maneuver; the next thing we know, Cromwell is shouting, “I won’t go” and “I’ll fight.”

Absent any sense of his religious conviction, all that’s left as an explanation for these decisions is hubris and temporary stupidity. No doubt a bit of both colored the view of a man who had been long in nigh-total power. But even I — a practicing Catholic who, as a lawyer, daily asks Saint Thomas More to intercede on his behalf — think it’s a bit unfair to Thomas Cromwell to suggest, inadvertently or otherwise, that that’s all that motivated his actions.

I’m not saying Mantel had to write Cromwell as a believing Protestant. If she’d painted him as an out-and-out atheist, that could have been artistically and intellectually interesting. (We know that such thinkers existed in more-religious ages and sometimes rose to high civil or even ecclesiastical office — but for obvious reasons, we have few accounts of their worldview.) Similarly, humanists and skeptics populated the Renaissance elite. Indeed, to judge from the pregnant omissions in his internal monologue in all three books, that’s what Mantel’s Cromwell seems to be. But this picture of Cromwell cannot survive contact with the necessary plot points of the third novel, and Mantel was unwilling to do too much violence to history. At the same time, she was unable or unwilling to write an inwardly devout Cromwell. The result is a contradiction between the plot and the main character that not even some of the most brilliant modern prose can resolve.

It’s interesting to look at how the trilogy wound up in such a blind alley. When Mantel wrote Wolf Hall, she was working against the background of Robert Bolt’s Tony-winning play and Oscar-winning movie A Man for All Seasons. Ironically, Bolt himself was an atheist — but for him, writing in the mid 20th century, More was a symbol of individual conscience in the face of state tyranny. (Others made this connection more concretely: As Alan Bennett put it in The History Boys, “if you want to learn about Stalin, study Henry VIII.”) But Bolt’s image of More, while a glittering work of art, was not a particularly difficult one to tear down. The real More had been a steadfast persecutor of heretics; like almost everyone else before Europe learned the hard way that you cannot direct matters of conscience with fire and steel, More believed that those with might had an obligation to make others see right. He would have seen his martyrdom as worthwhile only if the grounds on which it stood were substantively correct rather than, as Bolt would have it, because he was being true to himself. As Mantel traveled farther along the same revisionist road, it was not hard for her to emphasize More’s persecutions to the exclusion of his principles, or indeed to make his principles seem like part of the problem embodied by the persecution.

This recasting of More opened up space for a new Cromwell: a voice of moderation, a giver of light, a democratic striver who just wanted to get ahead and, as best he could in his brutal day, keep things reasonable. That this was not a particularly faithful historical representation mattered no more in Wolf Hall than it had for Bolt’s More. As art, it worked. Mantel’s view of Cromwell more or less inverted the biblical jibe that More throws at Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons: “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world.” (The quip that memorably follows, to the newly appointed attorney general for Wales, is, “But for Wales, Richard?”) Why not, Mantel asks, show a little flexibility for power? After all, once in power you can really help people, and the inflexibility of a More, so certain of what it takes to save a soul, leads only to tying the heretic to the stake.

In Wolf Hall, this concept is given artistic shape thanks to the power dynamic between More and Cromwell. More represents the established order, and a harsh order it is. In response, Cromwell does not need to have substantive beliefs so much as he needs to have a touch of skepticism and humanism. (This attitude seems largely to track Mantel’s views: As an ex-Catholic, she is vocal about finding her old church “cruel.”) From Wolf Hall through The Mirror and the Light, the reader will have no trouble feeling Cromwell’s anger at the old religion. In the newest installation, for instance, we read of the “common folk of England” who “spending their pence on candles to burn before holy images . . . live in the dark, and in the dark take fright.” But where is the light of the new?

In Bring Up the Bodies, the religious battle receded, relatively. Both Boleyn and Cromwell backed the Protestant party; what made them opponents was their lust for total power. Boleyn had weapons of which Cromwell could not avail himself but lacked any sort of political vision beyond her own good. Therefore, a vague moderation and sense of the public interest served to make Cromwell the good guy.

Here, however, we have Cromwell alone. For most of the novel, he is at the zenith of his power, without peer or rival. And so the lack of a positive vision starts to become a narrative problem. The Cromwell of this installment in the trilogy can be a surprisingly passive figure, to fans of the old. The religious reforms, the Pilgrimage of Grace, the dissolution of the monasteries are experienced largely as things that happen to him, rather than events that he set afoot or counted as the acceptable cost of his program.

Indeed, just as we do not see the ecstasies of the religious revolution, we see little of the crimes it engendered. The dissolution of the monasteries, for instance, entailed the destruction of hundreds of institutions that were the cornerstone of medieval social and religious life and, incidentally, housed the age’s finest art. (Remember what it felt like watching Notre Dame burn?) But the dissolution, like the repression of the Pilgrimage of Grace or the hanging of venerable old abbots, flickers only intermittently into view. These events are largely shunted to the side, as Cromwell focuses on endless, pointless dickering with ambassadors from the Holy Roman Empire and France, and on fending off challenges from a pack of pygmy noblemen who haven’t got a lick on Boleyn or More. Taking the book as a whole, we’re left with something strange: a man whose monstrous deeds and glorious ideals alike are kept largely offstage. It’s a sad diminishment for a character whose vitality used to leap off every page.

Just as Bolt’s More was a reflection of his age, so too Mantel’s Cromwell is a product of ours. Or is he a product of an age already past? In 2009, when Mantel was framing her Cromwell, the End of History was still very much in force. Notwithstanding 9/11 and the Great Recession, it still seemed that what problems there were required fine-tuning a system of technocratic administration and ensuring that the religious fanatics — in both Waziristan and Texas — would stay out of the way. But in 2020, increasingly large sections of the Left and Right alike, on both sides of the Atlantic, are craving more meaning than this technocratic vision offered. The hole at the heart of Mantel’s Cromwell, which was nearly invisible at first but became more obvious as the character acquired more power, may yet come to symbolize the problems of a just-past era.

This article appears as “A Man without a Core” in the May 18, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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