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What is “too long”? – The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel (Part 3 of 4)

In this post I continue to analyze the long and deeply nuanced historical novel, The Mirror and the Light. Previously, I wrote about the the extended metaphor that Mantel uses in the novel, that of the mirror and the light.

The length of the novel

An obvious aspect of the novel is its length – impossible to ignore at more than 900 pages. Some critics have said that the novel is “too long” (whatever the ideal length is that they had in mind), that she could have said everything in 200 or 300 pages, and that the story is boring because is is too long. I disagree with all these opinions.

If I were to simply voice my opinion and disagree with these negative criticisms of the novel, I would not be a better critic. Getting away from purely emotional reactions, I judge whether a novel is boring or not (and therefore the right length or not) by considering the level and sustainment of suspense. Mantel creates suspense through depicting frightening events, and characters for whom the reader feels empathy and therefore care whether they live or die, and by making the turning points and decisive moments of the characters, matters of life or death.

A scary time to be alive

The long procession of thoughts and ideas of “Cromwell” and the other characters, move the reader without pause or interruption toward the well-motivated and extremely impactful ending. And it is not boring since it contains plenty of terrible and pivotal events: – detailed descriptions of people being burned at the stake, torture, creeping madness, life-threatening political plotting, bloody wars, and death, lots and lots of death. That was how it was in the 16th century, and before, and afterwards.

“The king’s companions are prepared to march. So scented, the courtiers, so urbane: the rustle of silk, the soundless tread of padded shoes. But slaughter is their trade. Like butchers in the shambles, it is what they were reared for. Peace, to them, is just the interval between wars. Now the stuff for masques, for interludes, is swept away. It is no more time to dance. The perfumed paw picks up the sword. The lute falls silent. The drum begins to beat.”

The Mirror and the Light, p. 317

Empathy for “Cromwell”

The character of “Cromwell” is almost the opposite to that of “Henry VIII”. “Cromwell” is the main protagonist, but he is not as easy to understand as the king. Mantel constructed the profile of a man who, in real life, was not known for the art he left behind, or by his personal writings. “Cromwell” is not a romantic or poetical kind of person. He is not grand or (dare I say it) sexy like the king. The character of “Henry VIII” is quite close to the historical figure of Henry VIII. The king left a legacy of music compositions and lyrics – apart from the usual royal documents. Henry VIII was quite the adept composer, and when you read his lyrics, you get the impression of a man who liked to live well and enjoy himself, and who preferred the company of beautiful women.

Below is one of Henry VIII’s most famous compositions – “Pastime with Good Company”.

Henry VIII - 'Pastyme With Good Companye', or, 'Pastime With Good Company'
Pastyme with good companye
I love and shall untyll I dye;
Grugge who lust, but noon denye;
So god be plecyd, thus leve woll I;
For my pastaunce
Hunte, syng and daunce;
My hert ys sett
All godely sport
For my cumfort:
Who shall me lett? 

Yowth must have sum dalyaunce,
Of good or yll some pastaunce;
Companye my thynckyth then best
All thoftes and fancys to dygest.
For idelnes
Ys cheff mastres
Of vices all;
Than who can say
But myrth and play
Ys best of all? 

Cumpany with honeste
Ys vertu, vices to flee;
Cumpany ys gode and yll,
But every man hath hys frewyll.
The best insew,
The worst eschew,
My mynde shall be;
Vertu to use,
Vyce to reffuse,
Thus schall I use me.
Above is an image of the original sheet music of the song composed by King Henry VIII, known as “Pastime with Good Company” or “Pastyme With Good Companye”.
“Henry VIII was highly respected as a musician and composer. This manuscript, known as the ‘Henry VIII Songbook’, was probably compiled around 1518, and includes 20 songs and 13 instrumental pieces ascribed to ‘The Kynge H’.
This song, one of the most well-known ones, ‘Pastyme With Good Companye’, celebrates the joys of princely life such as hunting, singing and dancing. The manuscript was produced for someone close to the court, possibly Sir Henry Guildford (1489–1532), the Controller of the Household and Master of the Revels.”

(Source: The British Library, London, UK, retrieved 2021-03-17)

On the other hand, a more prosaic man

Thomas Cromwell is mainly known for having been the brain behind legislative, religious and political reform in England.

However, Mantel uses the puzzling and plaintive words of a sung poem, What Means This, When I Lie Alone?, as a recurring theme in “Cromwell’s” thoughts. This makes “Cromwell” seem, at least in his innermost thoughts, a more romantic person.

The more troubled his life becomes, the more often he unexpectedly recalls the lyrics – sometimes when he does not want to. And the worse things get, the sadder the verses of the poem become.

Contrast these somber verses with the lighthearted tone in Henry VIII’s “Pastime with Good Company”:

"I sigh, I plain continually.
The clothes that on my bed do lie
Always methinks they lie awry
What means this?"

(The Mirror and the Light, p. 729)

"In slumbers oft for fear I quake.
For heat and cold I burn and shake,
For lack of sleep my head doth ache
What means this?"

(The Mirror and the Light, p. 782)

The original poem, What Means This, When I Lie Alone?, consists of 8 verses. It was written by Sir Thomas Wyatt, a contemporary of Thomas Cromwell, and was first published during the reign of Henry VIII. It is included in The Surrey and Wyatt Anthology – 1509-1547 A.D., pp. 8-9, edited by Prof. Edward Arber, published by Oxford University Press, published in 1900. The full text is as follows:

"What means this when I lie alone?
I toss, I turn, I sigh, I groan.
My bed me seems as hard as stone.
What means this?

I sigh, I plain continually.
The clothes that on my bed do lie
Always methink they lie awry.
What means this?

In slumbers oft for fear I quake.
For heat and cold I burn and shake.
For lack of sleep my head doth ache.
What means this?

A mornings then when I do rise
I turn unto my wonted guise,
All day after muse and devise.
What means this?
And if perchance by me there pass
She unto whom I sue for grace,
The cold blood forsaketh my face.
What means this?

But if I sit near her by
With loud voice my heart doth cry
And yet my mouth is dumb and dry.
What means this?

To ask for help no heart I have.
My tongue doth fail what I should crave.
Yet inwardly I rage and rave.
What means this?

Thus have I passed many year
And many a day, though naught appear
But most of that that most I fear.
What means this?"

The last line reads: “…naught appear but most of that that most I fear”. In other words, he begs for sleep, for grace and for help, but nothing comes, other than most of the things that he fears the worst. Judging by the emotions expressed in this poem, one can only feel sympathy for “Cromwell”. So puzzled, so threatened. At heart indeed a “Crumb”. Always with the question: “What means this?”

Length is a matter of density

The depth of detail about the public and private lives of “Cromwell” and “Henry VII” are necessary to create empathy with the reader, but adds to the length of the novel. Even so, one must consider that the book could have been even longer than it is, since the entire timeline actually only covers a period of brief periods out of just four years – May 1536 to July 1540.

The text is long but also dense, with forensic scrutiny paid to single moments, brief thoughts, or a few words in a conversation. Even the smallest move at this point in “Cromwell” life, for instance the smallest miscalculation or wrong word to the king or any of the courtiers, can result in a death sentence for him or someone associated with him. One wrong step can mean; “off with his head”. (Which eventually happens.)

The extension and condensing of time creates a tension in the novel which spurs the reader on. Occasionally it seems that time is standing still for “Cromwell”, when he is caught up in repeated memories of him as a runaway boy, of the burning of the queen, or of a moment on horseback with his son. At other times, he is swept along in fast-moving events beyond his control, which leaves him feeling helpless and apprehensive.

Whether fast-moving or slow, each event which affects “Cromwell” and those around him, become pivotal in this last part of the trilogy. There are no events in the novel that merely move the plot along.

So, is the novel too long? Does it lack suspense? No. It is as long as is necessary, and the suspense carries on from the first page to the climax. It simply requires more – or different – attention than usual from the reader.

Next post: The downfall of Thomas Cromwell (Part 4 of 4) – The climax and resolution of The Mirror and the Light

The King’s Singers performing “Pastime With Good Company”

So you can get an idea of what a piece of popular Tudor era music sounded like, here is a recording of King Henry VIII’s composition, “Pastime With Good Company”. It is said to have been his biggest hit. The image in the video is of King Henry VIII when he was young. This quite pleasant composition emphasizes the contrasting – and clashing – personality traits of “Cromwell” and “Henry VIII” that Mantel depicts in the novel. I guess “Henry” did not think that “Cromwell” was good company.

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