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Book review: The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

THE MIRROR & THE LIGHT by Hilary Mantel, HarperCollins Publisher.

In the first of her Tudor trilogy, Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel  introduced us to Thomas Cromwell,  the blacksmith`s son.

Through Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies and now, The Mirror &  the Light, the reader watches Cromwell`s dizzying  rise as he becomes Master Secretary, then Keeper of the Rolls, then Vicegerent in Spirituals,  then Lord Exeter. And all the while,  the  reader is anticipating the grim but inevitable  fall.

So, who was   Cromwell? A  character difficult to like. Sinister, calculating, cold. Dealmaker extraordinaire. Some would even say, procurer (of brides, in this case)  to a king who rides wave after wave of volatile emotion. After all, Cromwell managed to get the king`s first marriage annulled. Then he managed to get the king`s second wife tried for adultery, found guilty and beheaded. When the king`s third wife dies in childbirth, there is Cromwell, seeking yet another  judicious and advantageous match for Henry. But one thing Cromwell was, definitely England`s money man of the time, forever thinking and plotting how to fill the nations coffers,  by means fair or foul.

At one point in this book, Jane Seymour the queen, dispassionately says: “It is he who does everything in England. Lord Cromwell is the government   and the church as well. “

He reads Machiavelli and you are not surprised at the  distinct Machiavellian traits he often displays. Then again, probably it wasn’t easy being chief councillor to a king `of great endowments, lacking only in consistency, reason and sense.`

Thomas More once asked, can a king be your friend? Thomas Cromwell thought that was possible. Another wise man  said, he who falls higher than he should,  falls lower than he would. Thomas Cromwell paid no heed. Yet someone else warns, Henry is frightened of you, you have outgrown him. Thomas Cromwell ignores him.

As his legends grow so does the hatred. They ascribe terrible things to him, some done,  some imagined. And when the fall comes, it is a long way to fall.

Thomas Cromwell,  Lord of Exeter is executed for treason and heresy in 1540. And it strikes the reader forcibly that some of the charges , like that he tried to marry the king`s daughter Mary and become king, that he breached the king`s confidences by talking about the latter`s relations with his queen, are so flimsy, just the kind of charges Cromwell himself would regularly trump up against his foes.

The book packs in a lot but then with 880 pages at its disposal, it can afford to do so. Anne gets beheaded, Jane Seymour becomes queen. The north rises up in the Pilgrimage of Grace protests and of course, it falls to Cromwell to put them down. Henry marries the German Anne of Cleeves and goes off his bride within a matter of days; Cromwell knows he is looking at bride-scouting for his sovereign   all over again. In the meantime, the nascent Church of England is still locking horns with Catholic Europe.

It is an excellent tale of hubris and the inevitable nemesis that catches up with such hubris. Cromwell muses: Henry hates his wife at times. But he could not wish them away. Only I could. It is I who tell him who he can marry and unmarry,  and who he can marry next, and who and how to kill. So much hubris. How can nemesis not be too far behind?

There are those who will consider this book far too ruminative and rambling. This reader will  not agree. The Mirror & the Light is a fascinating look at the enigmatic Cromwell who, even as he prepares for the axe up at the Tower, is more enigmatic a figure than ever.

What is more, many of the readers already know the trajectory of the impetuous king Henry VIII and also know just how Cromwell meets his end. So, for an author to keep the reader`s eyes intently glued to the page, page after page, is one big literary triumph.

And when the reader reaches the end of the third book, she is bereft. The real world is so humdrum to return to. Despite the spiky virus lurking in all corners.





Anne BoleynAnne of ClevesHenry VIIIHilary MantelJane SeymourThe Mirror and the LightThomas CromwellTudor trilogy

Sheila Kumar • July 3, 2020

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