The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, published by Audible as unabridged audiobook, March 2020. Narrated by Ben Miles.
Unless you’ve been under a rock since long before the Coronavirus lockdown, you’ll already know about this third and final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s astonishing fictional tour-de-force of the life and death of Thomas Cromwell. It has been an unexpected bonus of the lockdown that I’ve had time to listen to all 38 hours and 11 minutes of this audiobook, and be done long before Christmas.
It won’t be any kind of spoiler to say that this concluding part of the story is heavily concerned with issues of life and death, reputation and legacy. During the course of the book Cromwell is increasingly weighed down by the ghosts of his past – his father, Walter; Anne Boleyn and her brother; Thomas More; Katherine of Aragon and her lost children; Jane Seymour; and above all the fatherlike figure of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who looms ever larger in Cromwell’s mind and perceptions.
This third book is threaded through by Cromwell’s past. We meet his own unknown daughter, as well as Wolsey’s daughter, who does not believe the honour of his intentions for her. This feels like a huge blow to Cromwell, not previously someone who much minded being mistrusted. Indeed, mistrust has been a major tool to him in his rise the top. But now, shorn of his wife and daughters – legitimate and illegitimate – losing friends and allies, seemingly abandoned even by the shade of Wolsey, Cromwell’s urge to leave this life as one who is righteous in his own eyes and those of others becomes his prime motivation. The more his grasp on political power slips, even while he apparently continues an inexorable rise in status and riches, the more he dwells on the transitory nature of identity and reputation. Another reviewer has compared Cromwell to Jason Bourne, and I like this comparison myself. But this is a Bourne shorn of confusion and lack of knowledge of his past. Cromwell knows exactly where he has come from, and why, and how illusory is his hold on power and security. The end, albeit sudden, comes as no surprise to either Cromwell or the listener. It is no less shocking for all that.
Throughout the trilogy, Hilary Mantel has used the present tense and the very narrowest third person point of view for Cromwell; meaning that he is present in every scene, all the action is mediated through his internal commentary, and we learn nothing that he doesn’t. That could have made the bounds of the story seem narrow and one-sided. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a vast canvas, on which Mantel has drawn the entire Tudor world.
Many reviewers have praised the luminous poetic quality of Mantel’s writing, and her creation of the complex, ruthless yet utterly convincing and sympathetic main character. Others have praised her meticulous research of the period to present a huge cast of characters, and the consummate way she uses all the senses to plunge us into the toxic headlong rush of the early sixteenth century.
An unusual and very affecting element of her writing has been to include so many of the haunting departed, dead apparently but lingering in Cromwell’s world. The Tudor period was dominated by the ghosts of those who were threats, or rivals, or loved ones, of the various Tudor monarchs. None more so than Henry Vlll. And of course, we know that after this book has closed, Henry comes to bitterly rue ridding himself of Cromwell. I wonder if he too was haunted by his past?
There are so many strengths in this book. Yet for me, one special quality sets the whole trilogy, and particularly The Mirror and the Light head and shoulders above anything else I have read or listened to in a long time: the structure. The eponymous mirror is really a kaleidoscope, the multi-angular refraction of the world of Thomas Cromwell at the top of his game, at the moment he is about to begin the downward slide into ignominy and death. The narrative is driven by a series of dialogues during which the listener’s hackles rise, unperceived. Every encounter with the myriad of other people in Cromwell’s life, from the longed-for Kate Parr, to Wolsey’s daughter Dorothea, the frightened Mary Tudor, the vicious Norfolk, and even his own family and loved ones – Gregory and Richard Cromwell, Rafe Sadler, the weak and treacherous Call-Me Wriothesley: each of these scenes ramps up the tension, the subliminal fear, the swoop of inevitable disaster. And over them all, the vast corruscating presence of Henry himself, that regal source of light that will ultimately burn Cromwell and his achievements away to mere ash.
I have only ever experienced such a sense of unavoidable oncoming disaster for a character who seems unforgivable and at the same time deserving of all my pity and admiration in Shakespeare: Lear, Othello, Hamlet, even Macbeth. And when I remember that we already know the end of The Mirror and the Light before the book begins, I am overcome with admiration for what Mantel has achieved.
A word about the narrator, actor Ben Miles, who also played Cromwell in the stage versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. There has been quite a lot of criticism about his voice in the Audible version, mainly it seems from reviewers who wanted him to play Cromwell as upper class. I was fortunate to study the Tudor period for A level history, and I knew then that Cromwell’s status as a plebeian who drags himself up to the top through sheer talent and hard work was at once his strength and his great weakness. In my view, Ben Miles has conveyed this to great effect. I also found his ability to distinguish between characters from one breath to the next was exceptional. I think Mantel did very well when she personally chose Ben Miles to read the book; he added greatly to my pleasure and appreciation.
So, a five star listen, a great, great book, and a main character who will never leave me.