Review of new book

A historical figure comes to life – The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel (Part 1 of 4)


In the previous post, I showed my appreciation for the third and last part in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy. In the next four posts, I’m looking into more aspects of the impressively long and deeply nuanced The Mirror and the Light. In this post, part 1 of 4, the focus is on the limited narrator in the novel, “Thomas Cromwell”.

The Wolf Hall Trilogy, by Hilary Mantel

Historical and fictional characters

You can write a whole other book on the literary analyses of the Wolf Hall series, and this final book in particular – which is why this critique is so long. But there are a few things I would like to mention about The Mirror and the Light. Firstly, Mantel provides a list in the front of the book showing the Cast of Characters and the Family Trees, so that you can figure out who was a real person and who she invented. That is handy, and I returned to those pages very often, since the characters call each other by nicknames that I had a hard time remembering, and their names and titles change during the story.

For instance, the character of “Thomas Wriothesley”* is nicknamed “Call-Me-Risley”, or just “Risley”; the king calls “Thomas Cromwell”* by the nickname “Crumb”, as a child he was known as “Thomas Craphead”, and the French-speaking diplomat “Eustache Chapuys” – unable to get his tongue around his surname – calls him “Cremuel”. When the king makes him an Earl, he says “‘I am Thomas Essex now,'” taking over the title from the Earl of Essex who has died. The king is referred to as “Henry”, “Majesty”, or “the king”. But when people refer to “the king” you know they mean Henry VIII, not the king of France or any other king. I think other authors of historical novels should also include this type of list – it really helps.

*Characters’ names are in quotation marks. Real historical figures are not.

Famous historical figures

A limited narrator, Thomas Cromwell

Secondly, it is written in the third-person narrative mode, using he, she, or they. So the narrator is anonymous, but this is a “limited narrator”, which conveys the perspective of mainly one person – “he”, namely “Thomas Cromwell”. On the one hand, the third-person narration distances the reader from the complicated and large cast of characters, but on the other hand, having a limited narrator means that it is like walking along behind “Cromwell” all the time, in his footsteps, looking over his shoulder.

That’s what it really feels like, as though you can see through his eyes, feel through his hands, hear the sounds and the music of Tudor England. This is particularly intense since Mantel gives detailed and evocative descriptions of fragrances, tastes and textures. “He” is a man of many faces – he is a diplomat, courtier, lawyer, politician, a fighter, and a fiendishly clever manipulator. But as is clear from his portrait painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, he is not handsome – small mouth, small eyes, large nose indeed, as in the quotation below:

“He sees himself in the glass, stripped to his shirt, a startling flash of white. Out of his brocade and velvet, his person is broad, a graceless slab of muscle and bone. His greying hair is cropped, so nothing softens the features with which God has punished him – small mouth, small eyes, large nose. He wears linen shirts so fine you can read the laws of England through them. He has a green velvet coat that was made for him last year and sent down to Wolf Hall; he has a riding coat of deep purple; he has his robe from the last coronation, a darkish crimson in which, said one of Anne’s ladies, he looked like a travelling bruise. If clothes make the man, he is made; but no one ever said, even when he was young, ‘Tommaso looks handsome today.’ They only said, ‘You’ve got to be up early to get ahead of that squat English bastard.'”

The Mirror and the Light, pp. 63 – 64

It’s an impressive technique, since Mantel’s descriptions of “Cromwell” are very much a stream of consciousness. Every idea, every realization, every emotion that he has is described as though she, the author, were living in his head. That’s why I say, it is an astonishing achievement.

To emphasize the point, every few pages, she starts a line with “He, Cromwell…” or “He, Crumb” or “He, Lord Cromwell“. Whenever the author mentions a “he”, the reader can be sure it is “Cromwell” to whom she is referring. When she refers to other characters as “he”, it is not to convey a personal perspective, but rather to convey facts or move the story along.

This places a tremendous focus on the character of “Cromwell”, so that the development of this man, as he ages, as his relationship with the king becomes more negative, as he falls from grace, and as he becomes more powerful and more lonely, becomes critically important.

Another key character in The Mirror and the Light is “Cardinal Wolsey”. This painting of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1869), was done by John Pettie, and is called “The Disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey”. In 1524, Thomas Cromwell became a member of the household of Lord Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey, helping him with the dissolution of the monasteries in England. Wolsey failed to arrange the annulment of the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, and Henry VIII accused him of treason. He died before he could be put on trial from natural causes, but by then was disgraced and humiliated. In the novel, “Thomas Cromwell” often hears the ghostly voice of his former mentor and advisor, “Wolsey”. Sometimes he wishes the ghost would guide him and longs to hear his voice. (Painting in Museums Sheffield, UK, source: Wikimedia)
Portrait of Anne of Cleves, circa 1539, by Hans Holbein the Younger. Oil on parchment, mounted on canvas. (Source: Louvre Museum, Paris, France)

Next post: Who is the mirror, and who is the light? (Part 2 of 4)

About M. Bijman

Avid reader, longtime writer of book reviews and literary analyses. Interested in literature, creativity and cognition, language and linguistics, musicology, and technology. Occasionally writes poems and bits of music.

%d bloggers like this: