Ghost Story

Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel; drawing by Karl Stevens

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…

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