Having read every single page in the 883-page long historical novel The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel, I wondered quite seriously what it is like to be Hilary Mantel, to have all that in your mind for so long; and what it is like to be Hilary Mantel, who is able to depict this world that she has recreated in such acute detail. Good grief, I thought to myself, sitting staring at the whopping thick book in my hands, at 3 a.m., having sat up half the night to finish reading it: this writer is brilliant and this novel is a major accomplishment.
Long, but worth it
When I found out how long the book is, I was hesitant to buy it. I usually don’t have the time for such an undertaking – but this is after all Hilary Mantel, I told myself, surely worth the risk. But once I got into it (at about page 3) it went very quickly, it was not boring, ever, and somehow every word, of the many, many words, is fitting and intrinsic to the whole, suited to the period and the characters, and also elegant and poetic. It is impressive that an author can so firmly hold a reader’s attention for so long – it took me four weeks to get through it.
The main characters are again, as in the previous novels in the trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, “Thomas Cromwell”* and “King Henry VIII”* of England.
So Mantel did not only carry out this feat of creativity once, but three times, with the same effect each time of immersing the reader deeply into the period in which the novel is set, and into the lives of the characters who are depicted with a high degree of historical accuracy. Every time I opened the book for another chapter or two, I was plunged into the world of “Thomas Cromwell” and the intricacies of his life. Sometimes nothing much happened, “Cromwell” just thought about something, or reminisced, or it might be a conversation between other characters, or a description of one of “Henry VIII’s” queens’ dresses. Sometimes, it was a moment so spine-chilling that it stayed with me for ages. But every time, I was swept along.
*Characters’ names given in quotation marks.
I felt so sorry for “Thomas Cromwell”, the abused, runaway boy who becomes a rich and educated man, but whose life is in the hands of the increasingly deranged king. The poor, lonely man – the astute, wary man. The man who is made a member of the Privy Council and an earl but who the members of the noble families look down on because of his lowly birth. And because he is not good-looking. It was a lot to absorb for someone like me who is not a history buff.
The historical period
For a while I resisted the impulse to do background reading on the historical figures, Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII, and the other characters in the book who are based on actual people, because I was worried that the impression I had got of them would be changed by the historical records. I eventually gave in and looked up two things – the paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger of Cromwell and King Henry VIII, and the health problems of the king. I looked up the paintings because Holbein is a character in the novel and also because Mantel uses the paintings that Holbein had made at the court of Henry VIII as a recurring theme. Holbein was a super-realist portrait painter centuries before photography, and when most portrait paintings were idealist, not lifelike. I studied those two portraits (shown on this page), and they exactly fitted the characters in the book.
Then, from having checked few academic and medical papers that give a modern perspective on the health of King Henry VIII, I concluded that the facts perfectly support the development of the king’s character in the book, from a likeable, sane and quite a handsome man, to a cruel, unstable and very ill despotic monarch. These two aspects care examples of the typical high degree of realism and factual accuracy in Mantel’s writing.
Apart from this, what she has created from these dry facts and what she has invented to build the narrative, and the style in which she writes, turn this book from what could have been a forgettable historical novel into a thought-provoking drama about the lonely, fearful and regret-filled lives of powerful people, and their striving to attain some kind of happiness and peace when all around them are treachery, cruelty and disastrous events beyond their control.
Through the character of Thomas Cromwell, I got a sense of the heavy burden of duty that those who led the progress towards enlightenment and reformation had to bear in those days. It occurred to me that this has not changed much in the 21st century. It is still onerous to be a nation’s leader, whether a president or a queen, or to be the right-hand man and conscience of a leader.
I highly recommend The Mirror and the Light. It is an immersive experience and well worth the time.
In forthcoming posts, I will be discussing a few more specific aspects of this novel, because there is much more to be said about it.
Next post: The Mirror and the Light – A historical figure comes to life