WE HAVE been with Thomas Cromwell for a long time, in the three Wolf Hall novels: more than a decade, nearly 2000 pages. The intimacy is such that you feel like one of the ghosts who crowd in upon him by the end, although few us of have ever had such diamond-sharp conversations. Hilary Mantel has been having those conversations with his ghost all these years, and it is our privilege to eavesdrop.
Wolf Hall was, for all the grief, fear and anger, almost a romp: an astonishing, gravity-defying display of political acrobatics. Bring Up the Bodies added a queasy vertigo, as we saw what this man whom we’d come to inhabit was capable of becoming. The Mirror and the Light is all of that, but with a suffusing melancholy.
It begins as we know it will end: with the beheading of a victim of intimacy with Henry VIII. Cromwell is — we know it, and he knows it — on borrowed time. The past, the dead, old memories, press on him. But before he joins them, he has work to do: promises to keep, disasters to avert, friends and family to protect and promote.
And the grand project: if there is time, to smash up the old Church, that brutal parasite, so badly that it cannot be rebuilt. Ransack the monasteries. Judicially murder selected recalcitrant abbots. Break up the shrines. Dump Thomas Becket’s bones into the anonymous jumble of ex-relics in his cellar, tearing off their identifying label in a final act of oblivion.
It has always been a stretch to believe in this Cromwell’s Evangelical convictions, but now Mantel gives us implicit permission not to. He is the gospellers’ ID, their man of business, who willingly builds their world for them without fully belonging to it. The English word atheist had not yet been coined to describe this kind of cool Italian pragmatism, but it soon would be. The king mutters darkly that the now dead Katherine of Aragon will suffer for her sins in the place she is now. Cromwell thinks, Peterborough.
He is no hero, although Mantel sometimes downplays his culpability. Still: “it seems there is no mercy in this world, but a kind of haphazard justice: men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.” So, in the end he deserves death, but only for the unforgivable crime of not being able to outsmart it.
All the while, the writing glows and fizzes: most pages administer little jolts of ruthless pleasure. The set pieces are as glorious as ever, especially, in this book, a series of mesmerising conversations with women who can (at least) match his intellect.
Is it too long? An editorial Cromwell might have been ruthless with Mantel. For myself, I am more soft-hearted. I hope that she is not, in fact, as bereft as this book’s ending makes me feel that she is: left only with his ghost, in the way in which her Cromwell strains to conjure Cardinal Wolsey’s beloved, fading presence. But for her readers, at least, there is consolation. Once I have got my breath back, I am pulling Wolf Hall down and beginning again.
Dr Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University.
The Mirror and the Light
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Read the Church Times review of Wolf Hall here and of Bring up the Bodies here