The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

published 2020

So yes, I was one of those people who had the date in their diary for this book’s publication, ready to start reading it the moment it was published, and yes I did that, and yes I loved every moment of it, and no I didn’t think it was too long or could use another edit. She could have doubled the length as far as I was concerned.

I finished it a while ago (well, very soon after its publication date of March 5th) and have been thinking about it ever since. I will probably read it again quite soon. For the record, and you can believe me or not, I have read Wolf Hall nine times since it was published in 2009, Bring Up The Bodies five times since its date in 2012. I have also seen the plays, read the playscripts, and watched the TV series several times.

For me, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are the great literary achievements of the 21st century, and now this one joins them. My note says ‘5-star Absolutely superb, brilliant, breath-taking. Very long and detailed, but perfect.’

So I loved it and all I can do is try to say why, which I can best do via quotes from it.

Very early on, there is a scene where Thomas Cromwell is thinking important thoughts at his house, and simultaneously watching out the window as the young men of his household try to catch a cat that has escaped up a tree. It is evening.
Below in the darkening garden, the cat-hunters raise their arms as if imploring the moon. High in the tree, the cat is a soft shape visible only to the educated eye: limbs dangling, she is perfectly at one with the branch on which she lies.
It’s not even an important event in the book: but to me that writing is perfect, and I can see the garden, the young men, the moon and the tree.

I’ve seen this one quoted in a number of places:
But you have no affinity of your own, no great family at your back. For when all is said, you are a blacksmith’s son. Your whole life depends on the next beat of Henry’s heart, and your future on his smile or frown.
The clothes for a Princess (or is she?):
Thirty-two yards of black velvet at thirty pounds and eight shillings. Forty-two shillings and eightpence to the new Master of the Merchant Tailors, for making up. Fourteen yards of black satin at six pounds and six shillings. Thirteen yards of black velvet for a nightgown and taffeta lining. Ninety black squirrels’ skins. Plus kirtles, partlets, bodices, sleeves, sundries: one hundred and seventy-two pounds, sixteen shillings and sixpence in total, on the king’s account.

Too much detail? Not for me.

There are passing sideswipes for the dead queens:
‘[Anne of Cleves] has a very proper modesty.’ Think of Anne Boleyn; she would have sung in the street, if she thought it might get her some attention.
Never was [Katherine of Aragon] seen with tears on her cheeks, or an angry frown. 
‘Yes,’ Bess says, ‘Katherine was a great pattern for womanhood. She died alone and friendless, did she not?’

The brilliance ranges from this:
You look back into your past and say, is this story mine; this land? Is that flitting figure mine, that shape easing itself through alleys, evader of the curfew, fugitive from the day? Is this my life, or my neighbour’s conflated with mine, or a life I have dreamed and prayed for; is this my essence, twisting into a taper’s flame, or have I slipped the limits of myself – slipped into eternity, like honey from a spoon? Have I dreamt myself, undone myself, have I forgotten too well…
To this:
The archbishop emits a shriek – muffled, like Jonah’s inside the whale.
There’s the bleach fields:
she has put in his mind an image of Tyndale strolling in the open air, the ground dissolving into a pale radiance, the city walls whispering into vapour: his shabby cross-grained countryman transfigured.
When it’s not being funny, and riveting, and diabolically clever, The Mirror and the Light is unutterably sad – even if we didn’t all know how it was going to end, you would be taking in the slow sad decline, the friendships becoming a little bit suspect. In the other two books, there was nothing I liked better than the start of a scene where I knew Cromwell was going to have a great conversation, or social event, or do someone down – they were wonderful setpieces. They still occur in The Mirror and the Light, but they are no longer so cheerful… the threat is hanging there.

My only slight discomfort with the book is a strange romantic misunderstanding, which is heavily flagged and is like something out of a bad romcom. So I suppose I think Mantel must have intended it that way, to show something about the characters, but I didn't find it a helpful part of the novel. 

In general I was reminded of the lessons of the Godfather books – you think you can make your own rules and your own morality, but the iron rules of life mean that in the end it will go wrong.

Since the second book’s publication, I have heard Hilary Mantel talk (riveting, though you wouldn’t have wanted to be a person who asked her a stupid question), read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography of Thomas Cromwell, heard DMcC talk and met him briefly. In New York l visited the Frick Collection to see the Holbein portraits that feature in the book. These books have been part of my life for more than ten years.

Near the end, Thomas Cromwell looks (for the second time) at the story of Daedalus and Icarus:
It was Daedalus who invented the wings and made the first flight, he more circumspect than his son: scraping above the labyrinth, bobbing over walls, skimming the ocean so low his feet were wet. But then as he rose on the breeze, peasants gaped upwards, supposing they were seeing gods or giant moths; and as he gained height there must have been an instant when the artificer knew, in his pulse and his bones, This is going to work. And that instant was worth the rest of his life.
I think Hilary Mantel put that in to comfort those of us who didn’t want Thomas Cromwell to die like that: We want something to make us feel better about a man who died nearly 500 years ago, who would likely have been dead before the middle of his century no matter what, a man whom we really don’t know, a man whom Mantel has made us believe we know. A man we love, even though he may not have been like that, or very loveable, at all. And she taught us all a lot of history along the way.

Thank you Hilary Mantel.

There are entries on the books all over the blog: click on the labels below.


  1. I am so glad this one lived up to your expectations, Moira. Mantel is such a talented writer, and the first two books really were excellent. It's not easy to keep that sort of fine writing going, is it? But she has a gift. I wonder where she'll go next with her writing...

    1. SUCH a wonderful writer. Wherever she goes, she'll be taking a lot of us with her.

  2. I re-read the first two books when this one was announced but have now decided that was long enough ago that I should read them once more before reading this one. And yes, all of this is just delaying the inevitable end as long as I can. These novels are such a tremendous act of channeling, aren't they? I love the voice of them--the swagger and the intelligence. Am in awe of the assurance of Mantel as medium.

    1. Yes, I am quite ready to read all three all over again now. And I think will continue to take them all up from now on. I remember a friend telling me that he re-read War and Peace every year, and I found it surprising. But I can imagine reading these three every year.

  3. I read Bring Up the Bodies in early March and liked it a lot. A better read than Wolf Hall for me, but kind of depressing. I will read The Mirror and the Light but don't know when. I am glad to hear that you were not disappointed.

    I hope you liked Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography of Thomas Cromwell, because I have just bought that recently (on order, so not here yet).

    1. No, but it was sad. I think Wolf Hall will remain my favourite in fact, as perhaps BUTB will for you.
      I loved the McCullough book, and also read his biography of Thomas Cranmer, and his History of the Church - he is a very good writer, who makes his subject fascinating.

  4. I haven't read this one yet but am looking forward to it. I loved the first two, though I will confess that I was a little bit disappointed by the depiction of Anne Boleyn. Once again she was depicted as the bitchy one who is bitchy just because that's the way she is; she's a bitch. And I just don't buy that. Anne Boleyn remains an enigma to me and I had hoped that Mantel would give me a clue to her, but she didn't. However, I suppose that's a bit too much to ask from somebody who never met her after all, and everything else about the books was wonderful. The word that comes to mind when I think of them is "dense" or "thick", not in the sense of "stupid" (obviously!) but in the sense that the physicality of them - of life in the 16th century - was so tangible. Mantel made me feel the structure of the walls, the weight of a heavy blanket, the scratchiness or softness or slipperiness of a piece of fabric, the taste of a cup of broth on a cold evening. It is the closest to actual time-travelling that I can think of. (And I should add that I am slightly obsessed with the idea of time-travel; surely it must be possible somehow? If scientists would just get their act together and make an effort?)

    1. Anne Boleyn is such a mysterious character- she must have been the most extraordinary person, yet we know so little about her, and about what DID make her that way as you say. I guess Mantel was concentrating on trying to explain Cromwell to us! Have you read Philippa Gregory's Other Boleyn Girl? Some people are very snooty about it, and of course it is fiction, but I think it is a great book, and she very much tries to see into the character of Anne Boleyn. When I heard Diarmaid MacCulloch speak, he said that what he loved about the Mantel books was that he recognized the world she was writing about, it felt authentic, as if he was walking down a Tudor street. What a compliment for her!

    2. Yes, that is exactly what I felt too - as if I was there.

      A friend said to me that she thought the explanation for Anne Boleyn's (alleged) attitude was simply that she did not want to marry Henry at all, that she really was in love with her fiancé and wanted to marry him. So she was trying to keep the king away by being sharp and unpleasant, and/or was sharp and unpleasant because she was unhappy and angry about his attentions - but it backfired, since he was fascinated instead of put off, and she found herself in a corner with no way out. Which of course made her really bitter and angry and bad-tempered. Now that makes sense to me.

      I must admit that I had somewhat snobbishly thought that Philippa Gregory's book was rather trashy, but mea culpa, I will get hold of it and try it and see what she makes of Anne Boleyn.

    3. It's so fascinating isn't it? and all our theories are as good as anyone else's. I read a Ford Madox Ford book on Catherine Howard, and was much struck by his ideas - which of course are pure speculation. He wants CH to be cleverer than she usually comes across...

      I hope you like the Philippa Gregory. You have to bear in mind that she has taken the bare known facts and invented a LOT to go with it, and it is melodramatic and occasionally outrageous. BUT, I felt that amid all that - and 'all that' is written in a way I found very compelling as a novel - she had glimpses of a truth that was very convincing. If that makes any sense...

  5. I haven't read them! Though if anyone could persuade me, it would be you, Moira. It is more a question of feeling I have enough space in my life to embark on them than anything else.

    1. I'm surprised! I think you would like them - though it can be discouraging to come later to something that has been much-praised. I was always a big fan of HM, and had read most of her books, and when this one first came out I actually wasn't over-excited, so might have waited for p/back. But my daughter was doing History A Level, incl the Tudors, and I thought we both might enjoy it and learn, so bought it in hardback. Best decision ever!

    2. I think what might have put me off was that I didn't get on with her book about the French Revolution, though I do very much admire some of her other books.

    3. Ah well, my guilty secret is that the French Revolution one is, I think, the only one of Mantel's books that I HAVEN'T read. I've somehow never fancied it...

  6. I'm kind of putting off reading this, as a treat to look forward to. I suspect I will only be able to read it once - too painful to repeat.

    Currently reading the Jack Reacher series, as a kind of antidote to everything. NO clothes (unless you count his habit of replacing them instead of doing laundry). I was quite surprised to find how well written they are - my bad!

    1. Yes very understandable and reasonable about delaying!
      I enjoy a Jack Reacher - I just read one occasionally, and it is quite refreshing because so different from my normal reading.

  7. Glad you enjoyed it. I might have Wolf Hall somewhere, an impulsive second hand buy no doubt. One day...

    1. Yes, one day. It is quite a commitment to read, but you might like it.. Thomas Cromwell a noir hero if ever I saw one.


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