I hugely enjoyed the first two novels in the trilogy following the life of Thomas Cromwell by Hilary Mantel (see my blogs on Reading the Tudors and Bring up the Bodies), so was eagerly anticipating reading The Mirror and the Light. It seemed somehow fitting that my last act in London on 17 March, at Foyles in Waterloo station before boarding my train home to Haslemere, was to buy this book. If anything could get me through lockdown, surely this was it. Nearly 10 weeks later, I have finally finished it, having found it really hard to concentrate on reading during this crazy time. But once I was ready to read again, it was a brilliant distraction.
The story picks up where Bring up the Bodies left off, with the brilliant opening sentence ‘Once the Queen’s head is severed, he walks away’. This must surely go down as one of the best first lines ever written. Cromwell was behind the rise of Anne Boleyn and he was behind her fall. The Mirror and the Light examines the fallout from this opening moment, for the King, for Cromwell and for England.
As with the first two books, there is nearly 900 pages of immense detail here, with a cast list of historical and fictional characters that itself spans over five pages. You live every moment with Cromwell, as he gets up in the morning, sits down to eat, interrogates the King’s enemies, deals with the French ambassador, oversees renovations to his house, discovers a daughter he didn’t know he had, placates a child-like King, and receives a leopard as a gift. Mantel’s wonderful writing surely makes things easy for the television adaptation – you can see the world he inhabits, and the mannerisms and dress of everyone he interacts with, so vividly.
This detail of his daily life makes Cromwell’s downfall breathtakingly abrupt. One minute he is going about his normal business and the next he is arrested completely out of the blue, after a seemingly normal meeting with Henry. It is only afterwards that Cromwell realises that the King had turned away from him and had not looked back, echoing Henry’s last meeting with his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Cromwell’s failure to immediately find Henry a way out of his marriage to Anne of Cleves comes with the price of his life.
My total immersion into Cromwell’s world, meant that his arrest came as as much of a shock to me as it did to him. Even as I was approaching the ending, I was somehow expecting the series to continue with another couple of books charting Henry’s marriages to Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr. But sadly history gets in the way. As this is Cromwell’s story, The Mirror and the Light has to end in the way it started, with a beheading at the Tower, callously, but fittingly, on the day of Henry’s wedding to his fourth wife.