Before 2020, the name Thomas Cromwell meant very little to me. My knowledge started and stopped with ‘advisor to Henry VIII,’ and all I knew about Henry VIII was ‘the one with all the wives and beheadings.’ I’ve not been particularly interested in the British monarchy until recently (I’ve also been watching The Crown this year) and I wasn’t following book prizes when Mantel won with the first two books in her Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. But because I followed the prizes in 2020 and because many expected to see Mantel walk away with another win for her Cromwell finale, The Mirror and the Light, I decided to give this sweeping historical saga a go. Everyone seemed to be loving it! But alas, my own experience with these books was not quite as enthusiastic.
If you’re brand new to these books and avoiding all spoilers, you can safely read my thoughts on Wolf Hall; very mild spoilers will be included in discussions of the latter two volumes. However, this series is really more about the journey than the (well-known) historical events, so I don’t think reading all three reviews will ruin the read for anyone. Your choice though, of course! And a last note: it is best to read the books in order if you want to read them all, as they feature the same characters and build off of previous events and character dynamics.
In Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell serves Cardinal Wolsey, a powerful Catholic figure in England, a formal advisor and close friend to reigning King Henry VIII; Wolsey is in as high a position as any man other than the king could be, so long as he keeps the fickle ruler happy. Staying in the king’s good graces means bending the rules when they don’t fit Henry’s desires, though the Cardinal’s role within the church limits his ability to bend, particularly in the matter of the divorce Henry seeks from his first wife. Cromwell, Wolsey’s devoted right-hand man, is able to learn from his work with Wolsey how England’s hierarchy of power protects itself, with the help of legal trickery; this understanding makes him a prime candidate to serve the king as Wolsey falls out of favor. And hovering in the background, awaiting the king’s freedom from his marriage: Anne Boleyn.
“Beneath every history, another history.”
Wolf Hall was hard for me to get into. It’s slow, dense, and sprawling, and for someone without much idea of the specific history, the tension of the novel felt uneven to me, without a clear sense of what the threat actually was or where the narrative was headed. The cast is huge, and even Mantel acknowledges that far too many of the characters are named Thomas; instead of delivering nicknames or using distinguishing features or some other narrative trick to help readers differentiate, Mantel seems content to leave the reader to puzzle out who is who with only context to go by. There is a list of characters, but I found the accompanying definitions for each name too sparse to be of much help in remembering who’s been involved in what, and on which side. Furthermore, Mantel often elects to refer to Cromwell often simply as ‘he,’ as though he is god, perhaps; it’s an interesting characterization tactic that forces Cromwell always into the center of the tale, but I found it confusing, having spent my reading life learning that pronouns generally refer to the last person named, which does not hold true here.
“He hears her calling, Thomas, Thomas… It is a name that will bring half the house out, tumbling from their bedside prayers, from their very beds; yes, are you looking for me?”
But despite being a tedious read for me, I’d be lying to say that I found Wolf Hall unimpressive. It is intricately layered and detailed, the harshness and beauty of this world writ large. Cromwell- and most everyone else- feels well enough imagined that it seems he could walk straight out of the pages. It may be a book I appreciated more after closing the cover than while reading, but once I understood its direction and purpose I did appreciate how deftly Mantel illustrated the turning tide, the gradual shift of politics that would end lives and utterly change England. The years of this novel are a portent of what’s to come, and they are milestones in themselves, for the monarchy, for law, for Christianity.
I suppose my main complaint of this book is that Cromwell is not himself much of a key player, this story is in many ways happening to him here rather than at his own hands; these are the events that set his prosperous career with the king in motion, and yet this is largely Wolsey’s story, viewed from a distance. It is nonetheless a story worth reading.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This is not a book I would have bestowed with a literary prize, but it is a very promising start to what is clearly a remarkable series. I can’t even imagine how much research must go into a book like this, and it has my respect for that reason even if I didn’t love the read quite as much as I expected, based on the immense hype.
In Bring Up the Bodies, Henry VIII has broken with Wolsey and with the Catholic church. Rather than a cardinal at his side, Henry has instead a lawyer, one who is able to angle the law to give the king what he wants: that man is Thomas Cromwell. Unfortunately, what the king wants continues to change. He grows tired of Anne Boleyn and has his eye instead on a new prospective bride. Can Cromwell succeed where Wolsey failed, finding a way to free Henry from his second marriage to make way for a third?
“He has always rated Anne highly as a strategist. He has never believed in her as a passionate, spontaneous woman. Everything she does is calculated, like everything he does. He notes, as he has these many years, the careful deployment of her flashing eyes. He wonders what it would take to make her panic.”
This second installment was an improvement for me. Instead of spanning years, it focuses on about two weeks of Cromwell’s life, and rather than sowing slow seeds of discord it narrows in on one particular problem, which swiftly ends with a dramatic event. The cast shifts a little, but most of the prominent characters are repeated, and Cromwell’s tendency to reflect on his past makes this story easier to sink into from the start.
Furthermore, Cromwell’s characterization soars to new heights here. The entire world and cast is still impeccably detailed, but Cromwell in particular is in fine form. He’s got agency, and he’s on the rise; up and up and up the ranks he goes, and no one is closer to the king. He is crafty and quick, and he is reaping the rewards. But he is also at a moral crossroads. Cromwell is now in a position to destroy the king’s enemies; when backed into the same corner as Wolsey, Cromwell must choose whether to push ahead, damn the consequences. The events of this volume will haunt him, and yet he will gain further favor for them with the king. He is doing both the right thing and the wrong thing at once, and because Cromwell does nothing in halves, he manages to destroy a few of his own enemies along the way.
It’s a complex and horrifying story brimming with death, and perhaps the most unsettling thing about it is that it feels inevitable. It doesn’t matter whether Cromwell is a good or bad person, and indeed it is hard to tell here how black his heart really is- the position that he is in gives him no choice but to dirty his hands for the king, or lose everything. He has already seen Wolsey, his true master, lose. But Wolsey had to listen to the Pope, and Cromwell would rather see religion put into the hands of the people, with the printing of an English Bible, than continue to give Rome that authority. He is, in many ways, a perfect match for the king, though it is necessarily a difficult, delicate relationship.
“‘It was a bad moment for me. How many men can say, as I must, “I am a man whose only friend is the King of England”? I have everything, you would think. And yet take Henry away and I have nothing.'”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This sequel, while slightly shorter and more compact than its predecessor, was still somewhat too long and dense for my personal interest level in Cromwell et al; this seems like a good time to remind readers that I rate based on my own enjoyment/appreciation rather than objective merit (if such a thing can be said to exist in any art form). This is the one I would’ve happily given awards to, if that had in any way been my choice!
In The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell is reaching the end of his rope. The unfortunate demise of Henry’s beloved third wife is a blow for England, and as foreign allegiances shift against Henry and his blatant disregard for Catholicism, it puts Cromwell in the tough position of needing to find Henry a new bride that will bring allies for England. Further complicating matters, rumors against Cromwell inspire civil unrest, several prospects vie for the throne and expect Cromwell’s help to get there, and Cromwell’s own religious and political interests become entangled with his advise to the king, limiting Cromwell’s viable paths forward much as Catholicism limited Wolsey. A misstep is all it will take for everything Cromwell has built to come crumbling down.
“This is what Henry does. He uses people up. He takes all they give him and more. When he is finished with them he is noisier and fatter and they are husks or corpses.”
In case history (and Mantel’s previous work in this series) has not made it clear, even the synopsis tells the reader straight out that The Mirror and the Light will follow Cromwell through his final years- and so we know what is coming at the end of this tale, and if we know anything about Henry VIII at this point, it is that those who lose his favor do not meet pretty ends. The gradual downward slope of things gone wrong builds a wonderful hold-your-breath tension here; as in Wolf Hall I found the wider scope of years and events to be a bit too long and meandering for real cohesion, though having a better sense of what the narrative was working toward this time around did make it a better reading experience for me than Wolf Hall, even if not as tight and sharp as Bring Up the Bodies.
“‘I am in awe of myself,’ he says. ‘I never know what I will do next.'”
For prose, I would probably say that The Mirror and the Light is Mantel at her best. She is in full command here, her writing insightful, poetic, measured. We even get ‘he, Cromwell’ usage here in place of the all-confusing ‘he,’ which is a vast improvement in clarity. But she makes one particular move with language that just didn’t work for me: repetition. Even in the first book, Cromwell was in the habit of recalling his past and reflecting on changes that have come into his life, but here Mantel recounts whole scenes, interrupting the flow of the “present” to remind the reader where Cromwell stood in the past. Perhaps because I read this volume immediately after the second book rather than years after it, as more loyal fans who’ve kept up with her publications will have done, I found the continual dredging up of moments already covered to be too much padding in an overly long tome. I can see the method working better for other readers: the laying of two images side by side for stark comparison, but for me I found the constant reminders insulting to my memory of the character. No one is picking up The Mirror and the Light without having read books one and two, are they? Mantel’s working of small observances into the story that turn out later to have been clues woven subtly into the plot are far more to her credit, showcasing a mastery of detail and timing that Cromwell’s clumsier dips into memory lack. I would also exclude the memories that reveal new insight from this criticism, though I found these to be few.
There was one other choice made in the narration of this story that didn’t quite suit me: the final characterization of Cromwell, the tone that the book’s last chapters end on. What I’ve loved most about this trilogy is the moral complexity, the sense that Cromwell has simply been a cog in a machine ever rolling forward, destined to follow the dark path he is set upon by the royal figure who for all intents and purposes cannot be blamed (at least not by his contemporaries) for the wrongdoing he incites. But The Mirror and the Light, in my opinion, undoes that somewhat, asking the reader to see Cromwell as good, as sympathetic, and sadly lost in the end- drawing on his love for his wife and daughters, his devotion to keeping promises, his penchant for helping poor folk who are down on their luck. There’s an air of martyrdom infused in the way this book approaches the death of Cromwell, accused of a crime that evidence must be invented for in order to secure a conviction; while I don’t know enough about the real history of Cromwell to argue against the authenticity of this bid for pity, and of course he would have been as human as any of the rest of us, this choice of characterization just wasn’t what I was looking for from this read. I was much more drawn into the earlier painting of Cromwell as a sort of necessary villain. The martyr bit has already been done with Wolsey, and I was hoping to see Mantel take Cromwell’s peril to new heights.
“He has lived by the laws he has made and must be content to die by them. But the law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future. It seems there is no mercy in this world, but a kind of haphazard justice: men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think Mantel may have fallen victim here to a fear of leaving anything good out, at the cost of including more than necessary. But nevertheless, and in spite of my quibbles, I was rapt from cover to cover, finished the book feeling haunted by Cromwell, and am walking away far more aware of and piqued by this chapter of history than I ever have been, which I have to call a resounding win.
If you’re still with me, thank you; having read over 2,000 pages in order to write this post I’m letting myself indulge a bit (which is perhaps how Mantel felt, having obviously waded through massive amounts of research to bring us this trilogy).
Because I read The Mirror and the Light primarily in relation to the book prizes I followed this year, I’d like to wrap up with some final prize-related thoughts.
As regards the 2020 Women’s Prize: The Mirror and the Light was both longlisted and shortlisted for this year’s prize, and I stand by that. In my longlist wrap-up earlier this year, I ranked the 15 books I’d read; having now read all 16, I’d say that Mantel ranks 6th on the list for me, near the bottom of my 4-star reads from the longlist. In that spot, I don’t have any complaints about how far The Mirror and the Light went with the WP. And, though I know it’ll upset a few of my followers to hear it, I’m still happy with Hamnet taking the win over Mirror even now that I can properly compare the both- Hamnet managed to excite me more. But Mantel does have one major thing going for her with Mirror– this is the only WP nominee from the 2020 longlist that isn’t primarily focused on motherhood and family. Gold star. This year’s list was in desperate need of more variety, and Mantel should be commended for providing that.
Oh, and just for fun, my WP wrap-up included a few quotes from longlisted nominees that felt eerily timely given this year’s pandemic, and I’d like to add a snippet from Mirror to that list:
“But now there are rumors of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces.”
As regards the 2020 Booker Prize: Mirror was longlisted but not shortlisted for the Booker prize, much to everyone’s shock after Mantel’s previous Booker wins with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. To be honest I’m also shocked this volume was excluded from this year’s shortlist; it is, in my opinion, a stronger offering than Wolf Hall, and if not quite as impressive for me as Bring Up the Bodies, Mirror did, in my opinion, deserve a spot on this year’s shortlist. It would’ve ranked 3rd on the shortlist for me, and 5th on the longlist. I found this year’s Booker winner, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, more immediately engaging and enjoyable to read, so I don’t begrudge Stuart his win and wouldn’t necessarily have wanted Mantel to take that slot instead, but in all fairness I’m sure Mirror will live on in my memory much longer than Shuggie, so it certainly rates right up there for me.
In conclusion, Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy was a somewhat ponderous and trying reading experience for me, but ultimately a journey I’m glad I’ve taken and would not hesitate to recommend to history buffs and anyone interested in character-driven political dramas. It’s an incredible collection of work, and Mantel’s dedication to doing the subject justice and inciting curiosity in a shady long-dead figure is plain on every page. Though the trilogy requires some patience, it is, truly, a masterpiece.
The Literary Elephant