Halfway through The Mirror and the Light, I began dreaming of gooseberry fool. This summer, if restrictions ease and the supermarket shelves are stocked again, I intend to prepare an aromatic custard in a white dish, made with sour gooseberries, “tiny bubbles of green glass,” and eat it while it is warm.
For this dish you need fresh hens’ eggs and a pitcher of cream; you need to be a prince of the church to afford the sugar.
His uncle stands over him. The custard quakes in waves of sweetness and spice.
“Nutmeg,” he says. “Mace. Cumin.”
It is the winter of 1536 and Thomas Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal of England, now in his early fifties and struggling to find the men and resources to put down a Catholic rebellion in the north, is dreaming of gooseberries too. He recalls his uncle John, a cook at Lambeth Palace, teaching him to distinguish flavors when he was a boy, and he imagines the other life he would be living now if he had not fled London soon afterward:
He pictures himself, forty years on, standing where John stands now. He is the master cook, he wears velvet: he never goes near a flour bag, nor flying hot oil: papers in hand, he issues his orders, and at his behest a boy who looks very like himself tosses slivers of almonds in a latten pan; then he spoons them into the cream, freckling it.
Cromwell’s fortunes have led him not to cook fine food but to eat it. He sits down with ambassadors and councillors to a meal of “turbot, baked guinea fowl, and a cress salad dressed with vinegar and oil.” He dines on capons with figs, spiced wine custards, jellied veal. During Lent they get by on “saffron bread, onion tarts with raisins, baked rice with almond milk, and a new sauce for salt fish made with garlic and walnuts.” A menu designed for the great Tudor houses of Whitehall, Stepney, and Shoreditch has come around again; it wouldn’t be out of place in a Shoreditch restaurant today.
Hilary Mantel has made her name writing a kind of historical fiction that explores not only what historical characters did, but the interior drama of their lives—what it felt like to be them. How did people think in Henry VIII’s reign? How did England look in the 1530s, what did it smell like, and, evidently, how did it taste? The Mirror and the Light is the third volume in Mantel’s life of Thomas Cromwell: a self-made man, a lawyer and reformer, and in the period covered by this novel, 1536–1540, the most powerful man in England bar King Henry himself.
Beheadings bookend the novel. We begin where we left off at the end of Bring Up the Bodies (2012), with the ladies of Anne Boleyn’s court receiving her severed head from the executioner, swaddled in linen. “The small body lies on the scaffold where it has fallen: belly down, hands outstretched, it swims in a pool of crimson, the blood seeping between the planks.” Cromwell walks away from the execution he has orchestrated to a second breakfast (“fine white loaves, wine of head-spinning strength”), and over the next 750 pages or so he advises, strategizes, investigates, makes deals, plots, and finally pleads, before laying his own head on the block in July 1540, in front of an inexpert ax-man with less than perfect aim: “He can taste his death: slow, metallic, not come yet.”
Cromwell’s execution for treason is not a surprise to us, but it can hardly have seemed inevitable to him. One of the achievements of the novel is to hold off the future for so long that when it comes we have almost stopped expecting it. At times Cromwell’s friends, and more often his enemies, dangle an image of the wheel of fortune in front of him, and warn of the danger of overweening ambition (the higher you rise, the harder you fall). There is a great deal of harping (especially by his nemesis the conservative Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and the duke’s son Henry, Earl of Surrey) on Cromwell’s “vile blood”—his lowly origins as the son of a blacksmith and his inflated pretensions. But although Cromwell tries to read the signs that might alert him to his impending fall, he doesn’t read them correctly. No wonder, perhaps, given what else he has on his plate.
Jockeying for power in Henry’s court played out against a backdrop of immense social and religious upheaval, changes as sudden as they were vast. In the course of less than four years, following the execution of Anne Boleyn, Cromwell had to manage Henry through two more marriages (to Jane Seymour, who died after the birth of Edward VI, and to Anne of Cleves), handle Henry’s recalcitrant daughter, Lady Mary, put down a rising in Lincolnshire and a rebellion in the north of England, dissolve the monasteries and parcel out their lands in court favors, get employment for the painter Hans Holbein, suppress extreme evangelicals, investigate court intrigues, have a number of rebellious monks executed, placate nobles, levy taxes, worry about imports and exports, arrange for the publication of an English Bible, draft laws, introduce a register of births, put down the Pole plot (a Catholic conspiracy intermittently backed by Pope Paul III—still plain “Farnese” to Cromwell—and the Emperor Charles V), respond to constantly shifting alliances between France under the Valois and the Hapsburg Empire, and read everybody’s mail.
He was mostly very good at it. But his failures—in particular to still Henry’s doubts about the reformation in religious practice, and to persuade him of the virtues of Anne of Cleves and the Protestant-leaning alliance that she brought with her—undid him.
Some readers have pleaded exhaustion faced with all this history, and it is true that the details of plots and counterplots, with their bewildering lists of names (so many Thomases, so many Howards and Courtenays, so many new messengers from Spain, France, and the Low Lands), can seem overwhelming. Mantel’s account stays close to the historical archive, which means that it stays close to the letters sent to Cromwell by his men posted across Europe (including the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt) and the letters sent in the other direction, by European ambassadors writing home about Cromwell and the court of King Henry. In Wolf Hall (2009) Mantel wove into her novel the biography of Cardinal Wolsey by his “gentleman-usher” George Cavendish by portraying Cavendish as a loquacious visitor to Cromwell’s home, relaying his late master’s last moments. Here she makes sure that the most dedicated letter-writers of the early sixteenth century (or rather, the ones whose letters have survived)—Eustace Chapuys, Emperor Charles’s ambassador to London, and John Husee, a merchant based in the Calais garrison—are continually visiting, dining, chatting, and unfolding their thoughts to Cromwell.
But no one writes to Cromwell about what it feels like to be a hungry and frightened peasant when the harvest fails, or a merchant’s wife no longer able to worship as she once did, or a pious (or even impious) monk in a monastery broken up for its silver plate and its land. For good and ill we see the world through Cromwell’s eyes, and there are some things he cannot or does not wish to understand.
I have sympathy for readers who feel overburdened by all this “matter,” and who find it a challenge to keep hold of the thread of the narrative. But the imbalance is not because there is too much history in The Mirror and the Light, but rather because there is too little of the “real.” It is difficult to believe in Mantel’s Cromwell anymore, and hard to care about him. The man we met in Wolf Hall was a subtle, ambitious, quick-witted, and oddly mysterious creation, even if an implacable bully to his enemies. There was something airy but distinct about him.
A thousand pages and more than ten years later, he has become, perhaps inevitably, a much more solid and predictable figure. Where once you could trick yourself into believing that you were reading about a real person, feeling his way with the help and hindrances of his desires, frailties, and limitations, it is now all too obvious that he’s a character in a book. His personality has been raised to the level of a theme, that of the commoner made good, a heroic cipher for the age.
Praise for Mantel often slides into cliché: the world she creates is intensely realized, her portraits are extraordinarily lifelike, she has an uncanny ability to take us inside the heads of people whose worldview was entirely different from our own. These are all ways of saying that what Mantel gives us is a sense of the real. She digs down beneath public history to generate something resembling the lived experience of the past. The intensely realized world is built up through a tapestry of particulars that includes the taste of gooseberry and elderflower, the weight of a velvet cloak or the warmth of a fire, the smell of the river, the look of a desk heavy with papers, or a room hung with actual tapestries depicting other, older stories.
But since all this period detail is seen through Cromwell, he ends up having to be a window onto some quite unlikely scenes. He not only speaks multiple European languages fluently but also understands the quality and cost of all weaves of cloth; he takes an interest in the pruning of apple trees; he is happy to skin eels for his cook when asked; he can tell you all you need to know about bookbinding, accountancy, and gooseberry fool; he can explain in detail why Wyatt’s sonnets are better than most courtly love songs. The historical tapestry is woven out of threads of Cromwell, and to make it rich in detail, Cromwell must have mastered every aspect of Henrician culture and society.
The living, breathing Cromwell of the early books had nothing to do with historical accuracy. Quite the reverse. Mantel’s genius was to take a well-known, verifiable historical character and make it seem as though he wasn’t one. We spent almost as much time with his children painting Easter eggs or dressing up for Christmas as we did at Henry’s court. We saw him doing ordinary things—talking in bed with his wife in the morning, or falling asleep over his desk at night, his imagination alert to his surroundings but also to the presence of people and things that weren’t there. “Beneath every history, another history,” thinks Cromwell in Wolf Hall. He sees his dead wife Liz “whisking around a corner” or lurking under a stairwell. After Cardinal Wolsey’s death his scarlet clothes are cut up and used in other garments: “Your eye will be taken by a crimson cushion or a patch of red on a banner or ensign. You will see a glimpse of them in a man’s inner sleeve or in the flash of a whore’s petticoat.”
This is a portrait of a world where “the dead grip the living,” where the end comes so fast (the sweating sickness can kill in hours, before you get a chance to say goodbye) that it seems natural for the dead to hang around. But it is also the landscape of Mantel’s weird and brilliant novel Beyond Black (2005), set in English suburbia at the end of the twentieth century. The head Mantel took us inside in her portrait of Cromwell in the first two books was her own.
Alison in Beyond Black is a spirit medium, at the mercy of “interference” from a set of mostly malevolent phantoms. We learn in the course of the novel that the spirits that subject her to “slow torture,” now that they are dead, are the same figures who raped and tormented her when they were alive. Alison’s oppression by these beings makes her ill: her huge and unruly body is in constant pain. Another writer would have thinned the boundary between these ghosts and the unconscious, to allow us to read the spirits as emanations of Alison’s tortured thoughts. But the weight of other consciousnesses is real to Mantel. Alison is a portrait of a writer at the mercy of the voices of others, who cannot stop herself from seeing the other world that lies just behind this one, out of the corner of her eye.
Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003), is partly the story of her struggle with a body in pain, as a consequence of severe and undiagnosed endometriosis and the grief of infertility. But she also tells a story of an extraordinary substitution. As a small child she moved with her unhappy parents and her brother away from the terraced row where she had lived, next door to her aunt and grandparents, to a more posh house on the other side of town. Soon afterward her mother’s friend Jack moved in. There was a new baby brother. Her father slept in the spare room. A few years later they moved again, to a new town, and this time her father did not come with them:
The Hadfield accent never completely shifted, but it was my long memory that was the problem. The past could not be knocked or pulled out of me….
As the decade wore on and my family became established in its new life, I felt like a death’s-head at a feast. Henry, my father, might as well have been dead; except that the dead were more discussed. Perhaps my mannerisms recalled him, as an unwelcome ghost by the fire: the clerkly droop of the head, the habit of reading a book as if your eyes were hoovering the words from the page.
He was never mentioned after we parted: except by me, to me. We never met again.
This is something much stronger than repression. It is the deliberate construction of one reality out of the denial of another. “History’s what people are trying to hide from you, not what they’re trying to show you,” she writes in her memoir. “You search for it in the same way you sift through a landfill: for evidence of what people want to bury.” Mantel’s Cromwell knows this well, and it makes him an excellent investigator of other people’s secrets. But it also leaves him subject to the pull of other lives, with one foot in historical time and the other just across the border in the buried world. He glimpses things that may not be there; he overhears voices that may not have spoken.
In the earlier novels, Mantel put the reader right there with him, immersed in the flux. It was sometimes tricky to establish who was speaking, as the dialogue shifted without clear attribution. Some readers complained that the conversations were hard to follow; viewers of the candlelit TV miniseries, starring Mark Rylance as Cromwell, fretted that the indoor scenes were too dim and difficult to make out. In The Mirror and the Light, Mantel has heeded the demand for greater clarity and shone an arc light on her prose. The results are unfortunate.
Great pains are taken to make sure we know exactly who is speaking. (“‘I see,’ he says: he, Cromwell.”) The distinction between experience and memory is clearly maintained, even if both take place in the present tense: “There is a place, a sequestered place in the imagination, where the eel boy is always waiting to be whipped, where George Boleyn is always in his prison room, always rising in welcome.” Cromwell’s past has become the past of the previous books, and his memories are deployed as a way of reminding the reader where they are in the story. Memory has been hitched to plot, whereas previously it had to do with feeling.
To some extent this is inevitable in such a long narrative. Although Cromwell lives his life forward, he understands it in retrospect. The novel is punctuated by a series of reveries that return him to significant moments in his past: his father’s near-murder of him when he was fifteen, his fight with the eel boy from the kitchens of Lambeth Palace, his childhood encounter with the scholar Thomas More, his escape to Antwerp, his training in the Frescobaldi counting house, Wolsey’s fall. Set against the roads he didn’t take (such as becoming a master cook under the tutelage of his uncle John), these recurring flashbacks give shape to Cromwell’s character and create a spine for the novel. But they bear little resemblance to the sense of history with which the trilogy began. It feels like a failure of nerve.
The shift in emphasis is signaled early on in The Mirror and the Light. King Henry is in terror of the kinds of spirits that afflict Alison in Beyond Black:
If you creep close—if you were thin air, suppose you were a spirit who could slide between blades of grass—then you would hear the aspirations of the dying, you would hear them cry to God for mercy. And all these, the souls of England, cry to me, the king tells him, to me and every king.
For Cromwell, however, these are no longer “the days of heroes and giants,” and the voices of England are silent. “I don’t have a history, only a past,” he thinks. His proud status as a commoner and a self-made man is one source of Mantel’s sympathetic identification with him. “My own family history is meagre,” she explained in the first of her BBC Reith Lectures in 2017:
An audience member once said to me, “I come from a long line of nobodies.” I agreed: me too. I have no names beyond my maternal great-grandmother—but let me introduce her, as an example, because she reached through time from the end of the nineteenth century to form my sense of who I am, at this point in the twenty-first: even nobodies can do this.
We may leap on the coincidence that both Mantel and Cromwell, whose ancestors are said to have been Irish, can trace their lineage to the Irish poor. But the more basic similarity between them is that of valuing the past of a nobody at all. Arguably such reverence for the ordinary is a twentieth- and twenty-first-century privilege, and it is one of the consequences of being modern. Having a past is a secular way of dealing with the dead; it tends to be regarded as a cleaner alternative to living alongside their speaking ghosts.
The observation that Mantel’s Cromwell is an anachronistically modern creation is not new. Plenty of readers of the first two volumes commented on the fact that he wasn’t presented as a man of his time but rather as a tolerant, enlightened individual. He is kind to children and to animals. He takes women seriously. He is an ally of the poor. His attitude toward religion borders on the secular. This time around Cromwell’s materialism and liberalism have become more explicit. When Henry wonders about his dead wife Katherine suffering for her sins in “the place where she is now,” Mantel allows Cromwell a joke at the expense of purgatory. “Peterborough, he thinks”—where she is buried. The struggle between factions at Henry’s court is staged as a battle between a tribe forged out of dynamic ability and one resting on hereditary nobility: “The Howards don’t think about the future, not the way we do. They want it to look like the past.”
In fact the character of Cromwell that emerges from the trilogy is not so different from the one that postwar British teenagers encountered for decades. G.R. Elton’s England Under the Tudors, first published in 1955, was still my school textbook when I studied the Tudors in the early 1980s, and it was surely Mantel’s too. (Diarmaid MacCulloch’s recent biography of Cromwell is dedicated to Elton, who was MacCulloch’s Ph.D. supervisor.) Elton’s Cromwell was a new type of minister, an indefatigable worker, a reformer, and architect of what the historian called “the Tudor revolution in government”—he created the political and bureaucratic underpinnings of modern England.
He worked in the cause of English Protestantism, but he wasn’t hung up on questions of faith. He was ruthless but not persecutory. He was an idealist in the cause of political reform, rather than a rapacious tyrant. It is even possible to see this version of Cromwell in Robert Bolt’s salute to the moral qualities of his adversary Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. As played in the 1966 film version by the wonderfully dour Leo McKern, master of the appraising look, he is pragmatic rather than evil. He knows he has to get the job done. What has changed over the years is not the assessment of Cromwell’s qualities, but the value placed on them.
Mantel’s fondness for her creation seeps into every corner of The Mirror and the Light. And his enemies, both dead and alive, are also painted in primary colors. “It all goes back to More,” thinks Cromwell when he hears of William Tyndale, strangled to death at the stake. “He was proud of what he did.” More was the kind of man who whipped children; he shares with the conservative bishop Stephen Gardiner the distinction of being a fount of “boundless malice.” Given that we stick close to Cromwell’s psyche through the entire novel, perhaps this Manichaean division between good and evil is understandable—More and Gardiner are vicious characters because Cromwell hates them.
But I wonder whether the heroes and villains are so crudely drawn because, in the end, there is not enough at stake in the history of the Tudor revolution. There is not a great deal for Mantel to unbury from the landfill that is the enormous popularity of Tudor England among us, its modern, secular descendants. Cromwell was executed for treason, but in the long run his side won, and his character knows it. Awaiting the ax, he considers that he will likely go down as a martyr to “the great cause of getting on in life”—in other words, a martyr to the cause of today’s principal religion.
The Mirror’s Cromwell is heavy with his own fictional weight, but also with the burden of standing for a type of modern Englishness. (Mantel has been asked to comment on the resemblances between Cromwell and Britain’s current reform-minded second-in-command, Dominic Cummings. Her verdict: they were both outliers, but Cromwell was much better dressed.) It is through the book’s less well known characters—and the women in particular—that we can still intuit that “there is a story beneath the story.”
Beneath the stuff of rebellions, Bible translations, executions, and court politics there crouches an eerie novel about women’s bodies, the pains they suffer, the secrets they keep, and the lies they tell. Henry VIII’s need for a male heir made it impossible to gloss over the fact that female bodies lay at the center of English politics. As Cromwell says to a courtier reluctant to “pull the women into it,” “The women are already in it. It’s all about women. What else is it about?”
History turns on who a woman gives her body to, her pregnancies, phantom pregnancies, and miscarried children (“their blind faces and their vestigial hands”). Women’s power lies in the circumstances over which they have least control, and these women know it. Cromwell has a series of lively encounters with the women of the court, with the future Queen Mary, with a head nun out of a job (he considers an offer of marriage), and with his invented Flemish daughter. When Jane Seymour tries to learn a pretty speech to say to Henry, it’s very funny and nearly disastrous; we watch Lord Norfolk all but pimping out his niece Catherine Howard and know it’s going to end badly.
But the best characters speak without words. My favorite is Anne of Cleves, a woman “who might be married to one of your friends,” and a woman who is largely silent. She speaks no English, French, or Latin, and neither is she accomplished in the languages of music and dance; she arrives in Kent on her way to meet Henry encased in a stiff German headdress that makes her seem even more unapproachable. She understands everything, however, only too well. In a wonderful reversal of what the history books tell us about Henry’s disappointment the first time he saw his future wife, her dismay is unmistakable: “the look in her eye! I will never forget it.”