The Mirror and the Light by: Hilary Mantel – #3 in the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy
AGE GROUP: 15+// GENRE: Historical fiction// NUMBER OF PAGES: 883// RATING: 5/5
England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves.
Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?
*As always, the summary is from Goodreads.*
Hello! Welcome back to another review, in which I discuss the triumphant finale to the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy (more commonly known as the Wolf Hall trilogy).
*If you wish to access resources to support the Black Lives Matter movement, you are welcome to visit my post focusing on the movement, in which I list a number of helpful resources, such as educational literature, videos to watch through YouTube, and petitions to sign.*
I was absolutely astounded by the sheer magnitude of this novel.
I was deeply impressed by The Mirror and the Light. I wholly appreciated how the story shifted dramatically to encompass an increasingly demanding political element as well as a darkening personal element. Throughout the novel, the story grew to further explore Cromwell’s past, to further explore the latest marriage contract, to further explore an approaching war, and to further explore the alliances within Europe. These integral elements of the novel began to depend heavily on one another, and therefore allowed for greater depth and dimension. While I grew to accept my lack of understanding (and general interest) during particular sections of the novels, and thus grew distant and removed, I invariably regained my interest. In fact, the book’s absorbing quality rarely suffered severely as a result of my confusion (if relatively brief confusion). Indeed, I found the story strangely gripping at times.
Furthermore, I believe my extreme absorption in this novel was in part due to the palpably apprehensive atmosphere throughout the entirety of the narrative. As I was aware of Thomas Cromwell’s impending execution, I became highly attentive to his increasing miscalculations and dangerous failures. I was anxiously awaiting the moment his words and/or behaviour became treasonous and his fate thereby determined.
Throughout the entirety of this trilogy, I was continually astonished by the compelling and elaborate manner in which Hilary Mantel revives this component of British history. In particular, the significance of the way in which ghosts behave as a personification of memories—of the past—was quite striking, yet nevertheless absurdly fitting. For Hilary Mantel herself has spent over a decade recalling and reviving the past in a most vivid and extraordinary way. Moreover, she crafted the scenes of remembrance in the form of mere flashbacks in an immensely gripping and haunting manner; and the scenes in which Cromwell recalled a memory in the form of a spectre of the past were similarly haunting and strangely intimate.
Throughout the entirety of this trilogy, Mantel’s characters remained ever hypnotizing. I was especially fascinated by the significant darkening of the characters, specifically Thomas Cromwell, as the novel progressed. In part due to the use of memories, Cromwell’s history became further explored in this novel, thereby casting a considerable shadow on the morality of his character. This uncertainty of the leading character consequently casts extreme uncertainty and unease on the reader, thus appropriately contributing to the strained and fearful tone of the novel. Further, this final installment was particularly revealing as to the distinction between a character’s humanity and compliancy in an increasingly dangerous era. It was startling to witness how the majority of characters (even characters Cromwell considered friends) were unwilling to defend him as he awaited a heretic’s punishment: death. In fact, several of these “friends” contributed to the arresting of Cromwell. I thought Hilary Mantel excellently conveyed how dangerous it was to support an ostensible traitor—especially a heretic—whether friend or foe.
Finally, I appreciated the interwoven elements of fiction and nonfiction. While I do remain ever confused as to the importance of (SPOILER) Cromwell’s fictional daughter’s appearance, her brief story certainly contributed an additional intriguing layer to the story as well as to Cromwell’s character. I do wish, however, his daughter had been more prevalent throughout the novel, and her story further explored, as her sudden appearance felt somewhat unnecessary. Nevertheless, I do trust that Hilary Mantel had justifiable reasons for including a fictional daughter (who was based loosely off of a real daughter that Cromwell was rumoured to have had).
Throughout the trilogy, Mantel’s writing maintained its intoxicating and unique qualities. I believe her writing contributed to indelibly defining the novels in such an unparalleled manner. She demonstrated superior strength in humanizing historical figures of such antiquity, and contributing immense nuance and complexity. In particular, her writing flourished in crafting scenes of recollection, as well as in crafting sensational execution scenes (otherwise known as the conclusions of all three novels).
The Mirror and the Light concluded in a striking and commendable manner. While I thought Mantel could have written a dazzling dual scene integrating Henry VIII’s fourth marriage ceremony with Thomas Cromwell’s execution, I thoroughly applaud her for her masterful storytelling (which remained consistent throughout the trilogy) and her evidently tireless and thorough research in preparation for the writing of this trilogy.
It has been an absolute pleasure to read this trilogy. Most surprisingly, concerning The Mirror and the Light, I did not find the novel bloated. The majority of its content felt necessary and relevant—as did its length—but I am most pleased to have enjoyed it to the extent to which I did! As I am now mourning the loss of my 16th century companion, I have no doubt I will revisit the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy at some point.
Thank you for the reading!