Review of new book

Who is the mirror, and who is the light? – The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel (Part 2 of 4)

This is a post in which I continue to analyze the impressively long and deeply nuanced historical novel, The Mirror and the Light. Previously, I wrote about Mantel’s depiction of the most important character in the novel, “Thomas Cromwell”.

Who is the mirror, and who is the light?

A question that immediately arises in the minds of the reader is about the meaning of the title of the book: – How does this have bearing on the narrative? Mantel uses a mirror and light as metaphors, not once but many times in the book: It is “the”, not “a” mirror, and “the“, not “a” light. The metaphor is applied specifically to two people and to a specific instance. Most times, she uses the metaphor interchangeably when referring to either “Cromwell” or “Henry VIII”. In specific instances, the king is the light and “Cromwell” is the mirror.

The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel (Publisher: Harper Collins Canada, publishing date; March 3 2020; paperback; 912 pages)

Sometimes, she describes the River Thames as a mirror, reflecting the light. The Thames is significant because that is where “Cromwell” took shelter when he fled from his abusive father, and after he had witnessed someone burned at the stake. It is what connects him to his childhood home, the poor area of Putney. It also represents the link between the inhabitants of London and the king in his palace, acting as both a bridge and a deterrent. Most people have to cross it at some point. They might be ferried across in chains, to be delivered to the Tower of London, or be dressed in their finest clothes to attend court at the invitation of the king. Here, “Cromwell” writes in his notes:

“If those princes had been with me today, he writes, they would have seen Henry’s learning and marvelled at it. They would have witnessed his judgment, his policy: they would have seen him as – he lifts his pen for an instant from the page – the mirror and the light of all other kings and princes in Christendom.”

The Mirror and the Light, p. 616

This passage continues with “Cromwell” thinking about what has happened in his life, and what sort of man he has become – someone who cannot be a light on his own when the king is the mirror. (“He” refers to “Cromwell”.)

“He closes his eyes. What does God see? Cromwell in the fifty-fourth year of his age, in all his weight and gravitas, his bulk wrapped in wool and fur? Or a mere flicker, an illusion, a spark beneath a shoe, a spit in the ocean, a feather in a desert, a wisp, a phantom, a needle in a haystack? If Henry is the mirror, he is the pale actor who sheds no lustre of his own, but spins in a reflected light. If the light moves he is gone.”

The Mirror and the Light, p. 617

Even at the moment of his death, “Cromwell” still searches for the light, which, I think, represents reformation, salvation, enlightenment, and hope in the novel.

“He has vanished; he is the slippery stones underfoot, he is the last faint ripple in the wake of himself. He feels for an opening, blinded, looking for a door: tracking the light along the wall.”

The Mirror and the Light, p. 875

How to work up to a death

Another intriguing aspect of the novel is the death of the main character. As with all historical novels based on real people, the reader knows how Thomas Cromwell died, and also how the queens and consorts of Henry the Eight died, and other famous people of the age who feature in the novel, like Sir Thomas More. So, as you read the final chapters of the book, you know that “Cromwell” will die before the last page. The real Thomas Cromwell was born around 1485 in Putney, England, and died on 28 July 1540, at the age of about 55, on Tower Hill, London, by beheading.

I did not want to read about how he is put on trial and how he is betrayed, and particularly, how he dies. In the end I forced myself and I have to admit that it could not have been more movingly or poignantly portrayed. I felt the chilling sadness that grips you when you hear about the death of someone you know, because that is what happens after a month of being inside the head of one character in this book – you feel that you know them.

A revisionist version of Cromwell?

A significant aspect of the novel is the positive or negative positioning of the characters, with some being protagonists, and other antagonists. Some critics have asked whether the Wolf Hall Series, and The Mirror and the Light in particular, present a revision of the accepted view of Thomas Cromwell, or a revisionist history, with “Cromwell” being the main protagonist.

As a reader pointed out in my review of the novels about Eliza Lynch, the wife of the 19th century President of Paraguay, Francisco Solano López, the established views of important historical figures are often the result of their portrayal in entertainment media, fiction, and in “noisy and powerful propaganda”, with the most juicy and sensational portrayals being the most pervasive.

In the award-winning 2015 British television adaptation of Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the marvellous actor Mark Rylance brilliantly brings Thomas Cromwell to life, making the viewer feel huge empathy for him. But Rylance, with his big brown eyes and questioning eyebrows, melancholy smile, gentle voice, and slight frame, is probably not much like the real Thomas Cromwell. (That is the point of acting though.) The high quality of the series and the excellent acting led to Thomas Cromwell being perceived as a charming, quietly but determinedly principled, even heroic person.

“Why are you such a person?” I have never before heard the word “person” used with such malice!

Cromwell as he is described in the novel and in historical documents, and in the painting of him, was pretty much the opposite of Rylance. As you may imagine, anyone who was able to do what Thomas Cromwell did, for as long as he had, must have been made of stern stuff, mentally and physically.

A case in point: Thomas Cromwell looking alive

However, the real Cromwell could have looked more like this deepfake video of his face, made purely for interest’s sake:

The face of the Thomas Cromwell was taken from the painting of the real Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger. It was animated using the Deep Nostalgia app on MyHeritage.com.

Hero or anti-hero?

Cromwell, like most people, can be viewed as a villain or as an enlightened reformer, somewhere on the continuum of good and evil. Alexandra Harris, in her review in The Guardian, feels that Mantel rounds off her portrait of “Cromwell” in this novel as the final output of a well-motivated process of reification which Mantel started with Wolf Hall in 2009 – and I would agree with Harris’s assessment.

Judith Shulewitz, on the other hand, taking a stance, writes in The Atlantic that “Mantel has been praised for upending a centuries-old consensus that Cromwell was a man driven only by greed and lust for power. Partial credit for her revisionism goes to a historian named Geoffrey Elton, from whom Mantel takes her cues. Younger scholars have chipped away at Elton’s reassessment, but Mantel stands by her source.”

Upending, revising, changing? – that may be. But Mantel builds a detailed and comprehensive personality for “Cromwell” in the series which, when you read the books carefully, is neither positive or negative, but rather nuanced, well-motivated and complex.

Many historians though, think of Cromwell as simply an evil, duplicitous, powerful man. In his 1928 analysis of the life and poetry of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Frederick Morgan Padelford of the University of Washington writes:

“Who was it that had caused suspicion and unrest within the realm? Cromwell. Who was it that had kept England constantly on the verge of war with the great powers abroad? Cromwell. Who was it that had treasonably duped his dear sovereign into this clownish marriage? Cromwell. The King and the nobility were one: Cromwell’s hour had struck.”

F.M. Padelford, 1928

The depiction of “Cromwell” must be assessed against the very high degree of verisimilitude of the novels in the Wolf Hall Series, as with all of Mantel’s historical novels. The novels revolve around the establishment of the Church of England, the break from the Roman Catholic Church, and the bloodshed that accompanied England’s Age of Reformation, and Mantel does keep closely to these historical facts.

A man of his time

It was an extraordinary century, and the power struggles, wars, revolts, marriages and political allegiances in Europe all seemed to end in torture, followed by death, for those involved. Death on the battlefield was a mercy, really. It was just wholesale beheadings, burnings and hangings. The real Cromwell lived in a bloody era, and Mantel portrays, without shying away from them, the rather awful events in and around his life, though her recreation of the character of “Thomas Cromwell”.

“Cromwell” deals every day with intimidation, fear, torture and the nastier ways of dying. But even so, he shows subtlety in his approach, preferring to avoid violence if possible. Here he points out an alternative to torture to “Wriothesley”, nicknamed “Call-Me”:

“Wriothesley has not his patience: but then, he is young, and he has a family he would like to see sometimes. He will touch his elbow: ‘Sir, this is a mild pain, and we have a stubborn rebel before us, and it is late. I believe he can stand more.

But he thinks, no, none of us can stand anything. Scrape our skin, and beneath it there is an infant, howling.

He says, ‘You should try listening. That’s how you find things out.’

‘But if he says nothing?’

‘Then listen to his silence.’
Listen through his silence. Imagine what you could give him, to make him speak – instead of what you could take away. Perhaps he must die, and he knows that; but some death can be faced and some not. What is it worth, to be spared castration, and the apprehension of it? You could offer him the shock of the axe, the carpet of blood, not the panic of half-hanging and the agony of the knife in the bowel.

It is all about anticipation, he tells Call-Me. Give him something to live for, or offer him a death that spares him shame.”

The Mirror and the Light, p. 451

“Cromwell” is a master of many things – he is amongst others a lawyer, the manager of the finances of the king, and Lord Privy Seal – the one man closest to the king. He is also an extremely skilled interrogator and he understands how people think. In one particularly fascinating scene, “Cromwell” gets a prisoner in the Tower of London, “Geoffrey Pole”, to confess. He does this through terrifying the prisoner, not torturing him. He has his reputation as a strong-arm man and a ruffian to support this tactic.

“Cromwell” asks the jailer, “Martin”, to go and fetch the torture frame and the mallet:

“‘Is this what you require, sir? The frame is on its way.’

He had imagined a wooden-headed mallet, short-handled, for tapping in the wedges to hold the limb rigid. What Martin has brought is another kind of instrument, a weapon not a tool, with a handle three foot long.

‘That would smash the head of a Scot,’ he says admiringly. He stands up and takes it from Martin. ‘Just the one? It will do for now.’ […]

The noise when the hammer hits the wall is enough to wake the dead. It knocks Geoffrey’s stool from under him, jerks him to his feet. ‘Jesus!’ […]

Later, outside, Martin leans against the wall, shaky. ‘You said, fetch the frame. I thought, Mother Mary, what does he mean, I don’t know any frame.’

‘There are such things. I have seen them. Not here. In other prisons.’

‘I can imagine them,’ Martin says.

‘So could Geoffrey.’

In the room behind them the prisoner weeps. There is no damage, not even a scrape to his shins.”

The Mirror and the Light, pp. 592 – 593

Bearing in mind the facts about this era, does Mantel portray Thomas Cromwell as really evil, or the opposite? She does neither – the character has many shades of grey, many nuances.

“Thomas Cromwell” is complicated and seems mysterious, and while he deals proficiently with many problems at the same time, he is also unwillingly drawn back into painful memories of his past. He is very much a man of his time. Sir (Saint) Thomas More, the English lawyer, social philosopher, and statesman who was executed in 1535 during “Cromwell’s” lifetime, was called “a man for all seasons“, a charming description which means that More was, as historian Hugh Trevor-Roper called him, “the most saintly of humanists, the most human of saints, the universal man of our cool northern renaissance”. By contrast, “Cromwell” appears to be a typical “man of his time” and a product of his upbringing. He is tougher, more pragmatic and less saintly than Thomas More.

In the novel, “Cromwell” fully realizes that he is hated and feared, and he is resigned to that. People think he has affairs and lovers, but he does not. His wife and infant daughters died long ago. His life consists of obeying the orders – good, bad, or indifferent – of the king. And he has many powerful enemies amongst the aristocracy and pretenders to the throne.

As Mantel writes in the following quote, using the term “cancelled” before it became a negatively loaded word, the ambitious courtiers think little of the self-reliant, tough “Cromwell” (the “headsman” is the executioner who chops off the heads):

“To Carew, to the Poles, to the Courtenays and their supporters, the Boleyns were a crass blunder, an error now cancelled by the headsman. No doubt they assume Thomas Cromwell can be cancelled too, reduced to the clerk he used to be: a useful man for getting money in, but dispensable, a slave that you trample as you stride up the stairway to glory.”

The Mirror and the Light, p. 21

Mantel gives “Cromwell” a personal voice through her narrative by employing an internal stream of consciousness. This is “Cromwell” as he might have been as a person, a husband, lover, friend, and as a young boy. This is how he reasons and perceives things, and these are his well-disguised emotions. It is all fictionalized, but very convincing, very naturalistic, highly intriguing.

Mantel suggests with the Afterword of the novel that Thomas Cromwell is long overdue for a correction of his reputation. In a speech attributed to the President of Paraguay, Francisco Solano López, given before the Battle of Cerro Cora during which he was killed, López said:

“We will be vilified by many in our own country who will grow despising us thanks to the calumnies and hatred of the victors. But new generations shall come and they will vindicate our sacrifices and acclaim the glory of our immolation. I myself will be the most hated man in the world, but my great day will arrive and I shall rise from the depths of infamy to become what I must really be in the pages of history.

Francisco Solano López, quoted by Emilio Urdapilleta

President Francisco Solano López did indeed rise from the “depths of infamy” to become revered as a patriotic hero of Paraguay, as has his wife, Eliza Lynch. The quotation in the Afterword of the novel suggests that, in the same vein, much-maligned Thomas Cromwell is not as bad as he has been made out to be, and that the Reign of Henry VIII was not all blood and wars, but also worthy of the title of “Age of Enlightenment”:

“For you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age.
When the darkness is dispelled, our descendants will be able to walk back, into the pure radiance of the past.”

Petrarch: Africa IX, from The Mirror and the Light, p. 877, Afterword

I suggest you keep an open mind when reading the novel, regardless of whether you believe that “Cromwell” was a bad or good person, because that is too simplistic a way to assess such a multi-faceted character.


Next post: What is “too long”? (Part 3 of 4) – The length and structure of The Mirror and the Light


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