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.and
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.
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