At last! I bought this book shortly after its release in March 2020 with every intention of reading it then, but with the start of the pandemic and our first lockdown, I got distracted and had to put it aside until I was able to give it the attention it deserved. After that, there always seemed to be other books that needed to be read first or that seemed more immediately appealing, so The Mirror and the Light has been languishing on the shelf until I decided to put it on this year’s 20 Books of Summer list.
The Mirror and the Light is, of course, the final part of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, completing the story begun in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. At almost 900 pages in my edition, it’s also the longest of the three books. It covers a relatively short period of time, from May 1536 to July 1540, which shows how much detail the book goes into. If you’re looking for a completely immersive reading experience, this is it – and for that reason, I would strongly recommend starting with the first book and reading the trilogy in order.
The novel opens in the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s beheading. Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII, has achieved what he set out to achieve – Anne, who has failed to give the king a male heir, is gone; the four men he believes to have insulted his old master and mentor, Thomas Wolsey, have also been executed; and Jane Seymour, formerly of Wolf Hall, has taken Anne’s place as Henry’s new queen. Cromwell, now Lord Privy Seal, has risen high in the king’s favour, but there is still more work to be done: there are foreign ambassadors to deal with, tensions between various court factions to navigate, conspiracies to stamp out, more marriages to arrange, and the moods of an increasingly temperamental and unpredictable Henry VIII to handle.
We servants of the king must get used to games we cannot win but fight to an exhausted draw, their rules unexplained. Our instructions are full of snares and traps, which mean as we gain we lose. We do not know how to proceed from minute to minute, yet somehow we do, and another night falls on us in Greenwich, at Hampton Court, at Whitehall.
Then, disaster strikes again. Jane Seymour dies, just days after giving birth to Henry’s long-awaited legitimate male heir. Cromwell will have to find yet another new wife for the king, but one mistake could give his rivals all the ammunition they need to bring about his downfall. History tells us what will happen next and Mantel follows the history very closely as she has done from the beginning; we know how the story will end and so there is no real suspense – but there is still plenty of tension and a sense of foreboding as things begin to go wrong for Cromwell and the book heads towards its inevitable conclusion.
This book is as exquisitely written as the previous two books in the trilogy, but of the three I think I enjoyed this one the least. I seem to have said this about a lot of books recently, but I don’t think it really needed to be quite so long. The middle book, Bring Up the Bodies, was the one that worked best for me, precisely because it was shorter and more tightly focused (on the demise of Anne Boleyn). The Mirror and the Light kept me gripped at the beginning and the end, but there were times in the middle when the pace felt so slow I found myself struggling to concentrate. Maybe Hilary Mantel couldn’t bear to say goodbye to Cromwell and wanted to delay the moment for as long as possible! If so, I don’t blame her because that moment when it comes is as moving and poignant as you would expect.
Although I was expecting Cromwell’s fall from grace, I was still surprised by how quickly and suddenly it happened. One minute we hear that he has been made Earl of Essex by the king, then literally just a few pages later he is being arrested and taken to the Tower of London. What makes it so sad is that Cromwell himself is not really surprised at all. He has known all along how precarious his position is at court in a world where life and death can depend on the whim of one man – Henry VIII, “the mirror and the light of all other kings and princes in Christendom”.
Now that I’ve finished this book, I’m looking forward to reading A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel’s French Revolution novel.
This is book 15/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.
This is book 44/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.