“Wine of Head-Spinning Strength”: Hilary Mantel’s “The Mirror & the Light”

The Mirror & the LightAbigail Nussbaum has already written about The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel’s third and final Cromwell novel, in so circumspect a way as to render this post redundant. She has in the past been more of a fan of this series than me – I enjoyed Bring Up The Bodies  but find the way Mantel deals with historical context difficult to wash over – but her critical reading of this concluding volume is generous enough to encompass both its merits and its failings:

All of it is expertly turned, beautifully written, absolutely fascinating. But it also has the feel of marking time. Quite a lot happens in The Mirror and the Light, for all that one might go into it expecting it to be a mere period on Cromwell’s life. It’s 450 pages before Jane Seymour dies. 600 before Anne of Cleves shows her face. In between there are crises galore—Henry’s daughter Mary nearly talks herself onto the gallows through her refusal to acknowledge her father as the head of the church; the peasants’ army nearly reaches London, baying for Cromwell’s blood the entire time; the Poles and the Courtenays scheme while pretending loyalty to Henry and cooperation with Cromwell. But rather than come together into a crescendo, there’s a certain episodic feeling to it all.

This was my experience of the novel, too. Bring Up The Bodies remains for me the best of the trilogy because it is also the leanest, hemmed in both by the volumes around it but also the events and timelines they set in motion and bring to a close. Structure was forced upon Mantel in that intermediate novel, in other words, but in The Mirror & the Light she seems – just as Wolf Hall struggled at times to get going from a standing start – to be reluctant to reach the end. What results is a dilatory experience, and one in which – uniquely in this series – the historical material, Mantel’s undoubtedly deep and broad research, starts to show. We get a lot of this:

It was like killing a cripple; but Henry Tudor did it, so as not to lose the Spanish bride. With Warwick dead, his sister Margaret was in the hands of the king; he made her safe with marriage to a loyalist. “My grandmother wed her to Arthur Pole,” the king says. “I made her Countess of Salisbury.” [p. 99]

Reader, you don’t need to know this. The conceit is that Cromwell does – or rather, that he may. Cromwell’s challenge at all times is to know everything, map out all potentialities, in order to make up for his absence of position, standing and force. The novel thus drowns him slowly, piling incident upon incident until the deluge is too great even for him to withstand. Cromwell loses because he loses control. This is an effective explanation of his downfall – and at the present time a compelling depiction of a society so beset that radical change and personal destruction is inevitable. But the novel, too, loses control.

February, the king sends Philip Hoby into France. Hoby is a gentleman of the privy chamber: a gospeller, good-looking and keen, and well-briefed by himself, the Lord Privy Seal. The king thinks he has a chance of Madame de Longueville, despite the King of Scots’ claims that they are affianced. But there is no harm in looking at her sister, Louise. There is another sister, Renée, who they say is bound for a covent. [p. 534]

It goes on and on. There are walk-on parts for every vaguely famous Henrician notable, and many more besides; the cast of principal characters grows as Cromwell’s own star wanes; the plots become, again no doubt deliberately, impossible to contain. In an episode-long Start The Week interview to mark publication of this novel, the BBC’s Andrew Marr interviewed Mantel as if she were not a novelist but a historian, asking questions of motivation and meaning, interpretation and incident, that might have been better directed towards Diarmaid MacCulloch. But what was fascinating is that Mantel could answer them as if she were a historian, too. The Mirror & the Light, with its compendious qualities and apparent need to encompass not just its own story but all the ones that might have happened instead or did happen to one side of it, betrays this shift in her style.

In another way, though, I was reminded most keenly of fantasy as I read this novel. The Mirror & the Light shares little with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and in one respect they are particularly alike: their scope. Both series take in a huge number of characters, each with their own agendas and desires, and both range across a number of years and a complex sequences of world-defining events. Where Martin conveys these via multiple perspectives, the defining quality of Mantel’s series is its fixation on only one; her literary achievement in creating a convincing consciousness out of this choice is of course these novels’ crowning glory, and what elevates them to the presumed pantheon of early twenty-first-century greatness. But A Song of Ice and Fire in fact balances its many plotlines and coincidences, vignettes and cameos, with more finesse. Much in Martin happens off-screen, imparted by rumour or letter; so, too, in Mantel. Much proves to be irrelevant or tangential, as in Mantel. And much of Martin’s narrative, too, cannot possibly be held in the reader’s mind constantly and at all times – or even requires itself to be. In Mantel, this becomes wearying, even over the course of a single instalment; in Martin, it often does not.

Perhaps this is because Martin’s popular fiction includes the sort of signposting or summarising – the telling and the showing – that literary fiction eschews. Mantel’s novels are Henrician courts in miniature – difficult to navigate, impossible to unravel, both compelling and claustrophobic. “That is how the enemy is hoisted, flying into the air while his horse carries on without him,” we read of a joust. “You hardly hear him hit the ground because the courtiers are yelling like drunks at a bear-baiting” [p. 790]. The noise, in other words, is part of the experience; and it’s meant to be distracting. The telling is secondary to the effect.

How much you get on with this novel will depend a great deal on how much you mind its approach. For me, the hyper-granular world-building feels both overwhelming and unconnected to the novel’s real project – to create in Cromwell a convincingly modern personality, a character we can relate to even as the world through which he moves is alien and strange. Given these novels are so loved by so many, I’m open – as I was back in 2009 – to the idea that this is my failing not the novel’s. Another of this year’s Women’s Prize shortlistees, Bernardino Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is also a garlanded novel I admire but cannot love – and in which I don’t quite see the transcendental virtues others can perceive.

As The Mirror & the Light expands ever outwards across its remarkable length (and we should pause here to marvel at Mantel’s ability to stretch her novel across this sort of page-count without ever once making a prosodic slip), it only becomes more and more itself. And it is too late for this trilogy, as it becomes too late for poor old Thomas Cromwell, to win your allegiance if it has not already.

“Roses Snatched From The Thorns”: Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies”

When I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall back in 2009, I was less complimentary than most. Despite the weight often attached by the cognoscenti to my sceptical eyebrow,  the novel went on to win that year’s Booker Prize. I wanted, in the wake of that victory, to return to Wolf Hall and attempt to see past my discomfiture with its vision of Thomas Cromwell. It is, however, a big book – and I turned to new projects instead. Happily, then, the publication last month of Bring Up The Bodies, Mantel’s sequel, gave me the excuse I was looking for.

On the other hand, this new novel is a different beast. It is slimmer, for a start, and far more focused: where Wolf Hall began in 1500 and ended only in July 1535, its sequel covers barely 11 months – the period of Anne Boleyn’s fall from favour, from September 1535 to the summer of 1536. This paring-down has two principal effects: first, it imposes upon the novel something approximating a plot which, though often progressing off-stage in the way of a play, has a beginning, a middle and an end; second, it demands a more detailed appreciation of Cromwell’s own decision-making. In Wolf Hall, years flicked by rapidly and schematically – Cromwell moved in an upward trajectory at times almost by luck, and the wisdom of his canny maneuvres were the novel’s organising principle; here, he is more subject to events.

The style of all this, though, is broadly similar: as I wrote in my post on Wolf Hall, Mantel inspires in the reader a kind of fugue state, drifting at seeming random from one dream-like vignette to the next, always in the third person and always following him, Cromwell. He says, he speaks, he directs. Every other character – from the highest in the land to the lowest – revolve around him, Cromwell. “The fist of Cromwell is more proximate than the hand of God,” quips one character [pg. 115], and in so doing cuts to the quick of Cromwell’s dominating presence in the novel. Indeed, humour has a far more significant role in Bring Up The Bodies than its predecessor, with even its opening cast list featuring a grim punchline (the final actor listed as “a French executioner”. This makes for a more playful and supple style than Wolf Hall‘s occassionally occluding severity – although admittedly its lighter tone and shorter timespan works against quite the depth of Tudor grime accrued by the first novel.

What’s odd about this sunlight is that Bring Up The Bodies sees Mantel step away – only a little, but step all the same – from Wolf Hall‘s vision of the Good Cromwell. Her previous refutation of Robert Bolt was made rather too strenuously, and perhaps in recompense Bring Up The Bodies gives us a more ambivalent, more compromised character. The nature of this depiction is encapsulated early on: “He has always done what was needed to survive, and if his judgement of what was necessary was sometimes questionable … that is what it is to be young. Nowadays he takes poor scholars into his family.” [pg. 66]   That is, we see a Cromwell haunted by his past (‘The Dead’ get their own section of the cast list) who is intensely involved in convincing himself he is making amends. When questioning the musician Mark Smeaton, and in an instance of the way in which Mantel captures beautifully the theological anxieties of the age, Cromwell says smoothly: “I think you have become too assured of forgiveness, believing that you have years ahead of you to sin and yet though God sees all he must be patient, like a waiting man: and you will notice him at last, and answer is suit, if only he will wait till you are old.” [pg. 336]  It’s hard not to hear Cromwell talking to himself here.

As Colin Burrow has pointed out, however, the novel works like the Tudor court: rumours of beheadings and poisonings reach us of which Cromwell denies all knowledge, leaving us to wonder if they are unfounded or he self-deluded. “Ireland is quiet this Christmas,” Mantel explains, “in greater peace than she has seen for forty years. Mainly he has brought this about by hanging people. Not many: just the right ones. It’s an art, a necessary art.” [pg. 135]   Yet Cromwell’s pragmatism still gives him room to mythologise the morality of his methods: “I will not rack him,” he insists of one of four men involved in the Boleyn affair. “I do not want him carried to his trial in a chair. And if I need to rack a sad little fellow like this … what next? Stamping on dormice?” [pg. 277]  When we first meet the Cromwell of Bring Up The Bodies, “he comes into his hall to find versions of himself in various stages of becoming” [pg. 7] – his rooms full of portraits in varying stages of completion – and throughout the novel Master Secretary is writing himself a history.

As in Wolf Hall, that history is primarily one of the march to modernity. This Whiggish whiff is tempered by a sly vision of Englishness – “The Italians […] say the road between England and Hell is worn bare from treading feet” [pg. 34] – and Cromwell’s England is most clearly characterised by the double standards of his own self-awareness. “You will not hear of any talent I possess, that England cannot use,” he boasts to his enemy Stephen Gardiner [pg. 72], but these talents are so useful to this putatively modern England because it is itself emerging into an age which requires quiet hypocrisy. The dissolution of the monasteries, and the manuevers to enthrone Jane Seymour as Queen, both take place in sotto voice, less stated aims than private enrichments. “The French do not understand law courts and parliaments,” sighs Cromwell. “For them, the best actions are covert actions.” [pg. 380]  But public actions are not necessarily private meanings, and it is the the spurned Katherine of Aragon who captures the tenor of Tudor England best: “Ah, do you see, I am an Englishwoman now! I know how to say the opposite of what I mean.” [pg. 140]

Indeed, Bring Up The Bodies has a sustained interest in the role of women in this apparently ineluctably male society. “Women have to adapt themselves,” sighs Margery Seymour [pg. 17], and the novel looks with some interest at the ways in which those adaptations are made. George Boleyn’s poor wife, Jane Rochford, says of her father, “He paid less mind to contracting me to Boleyn than he would to selling a hound or puppy” [pg. 265], and in his usual way Cromwell professes to feel pity for the downtrodden: “she is fighting with the women’s weapons that are all she has,” he opines of Anne. But in truth it is men’s visions which dictate this impossible position – and Cromwell does little to alleviate them, deciding Jane Seymour’s fate with only an interest in her virginal appearance. “What do we look for in a queen?” the King’s Treasurer wonders aloud. “She should have all the virtues of an ordinary woman, but she must have them to a high degree.”[pg. 215] This prescriptiveness – modesty, humility, obedience – sets the fate of the novel’s women as surely as they do the poor scholars Cromwell pretends to patronise.

Bring Up The Bodies, then, is about power and privilege – and in this way, like its forebear speaks to our present moment. Indeed, this Cromwell still feels “stuck like a limpet to the future” [pg. 406], and this still renders the historicity of the novel – which, though narrower than the world-creation of Wolf Hall, remains one of its primary projects (Mantel is good at images that evoke a society – Anne “orders her women out [… like] a child scaring crows” [pg. 106]). But in allowing a greater complicity in this older, more ambivalent, Cromwell, Mantel at least succeeds in subsuming her protagonist more clearly in the period through which he passes. This produces a surer sense of both time and place in which events overtake even this non-Machiavellian Machiavellian (The Prince “seemed almost trite to him, nothing in it but abstractions” [pg. 71]).  Events – history – catch up with every figure, of course; they write over us, or writes is out, at their convenience. “Unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.” [pg. 159]  Perhaps; but in the third volume of what seems increasingly to be a trilogy best judged in toto, the wolves will be at Thomas Cromwell’s door.

“What Is There, But Affairs?” Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Just Google for reviews of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The critical response to this historical novel has been rapturous: everyone seems agreed that it is a staggering achievement, a historical novel of rare scope and humanity. Diana Athill thinks that the book boasts a better imagined world than any book since Middlemarch. This is some praise. So why was my experience of the novel not quite so enjoyable?

In part, no doubt, it’s because I can’t entirely get on board with its historiography. The book builds on the early positions I described last week, until it’s clear that Cromwell is an ambivalent figure: modern, yes, but largely because of his lack of belief. Those around Cromwell are characterised by an allegiance to a system: More’s Catholicism, Norfolk’s feudalism, Wolsey’s royalism. Cromwell, on the other hand, has an almost Nietzschean approach. “I distrust all systematizers, ” wrote the philosopher, “and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” Mantel’s Cromwell likewise believes in personal respect and education, a fully humanist perspective which sets him at odds with the medievalised England to which he is born. Mantel sees his meritocratic rise – from smith’s son to soldier, trader to merchant, lawyer to Lord Chancellor – as a symbol of the birth of our modern age.

He doesn’t give birth alone: Wolsey builds the apparatus of the state, Cranmer creates the intellectual and theological space for Cromwell’s actions. But these men are not the novel’s focus. So tightly is the novel about Cromwell that it is written in the present tense, with a reliance on the third person: Cromwell is always ‘he’, like God. Like a deity, Cromwell is in the process of creation, of forging modern England. This is a valorising of the traditional view of Cromwell as venal and self-serving, his lack of principle turned into a virtuous absence of dogma. But it also places him to one side of his own period – time and again, he is used a sort of counterpoint to the Henrican court which never truly accepts him – and yet undboutedly Cromwell’s opinions and actions were products of that age. His dissolution of the monasteries was less the inauguration of a brave new world than an implicit adjustment to its terms.

So the novel’s central project feels anachronistic to me: it is shrouded in witty dialogue and some nicely alien set pieces which add versimilitude, but ultimately it never quite feels real. I’m fairly sure this is unfair on the book, and I wish I could feel differently. The novel emphasises its unreality, floating past in dreamy vignettes which succeed each other in a sort of trance-like passage of events. This isn’t history. And yet nor is it quite fiction: there are no passages of elaborate description or internal monologue, no attempts at rigorous characterisation. The figures enter and exit the stage very much in the style of reanimated historical personages: the novel expects us to know something of the story of Anne Boleyn, wants us to join in with a knowing wink and a nod of the head. It cannot claim to be doing its own heavy lifting; and yet it treats the material on which it relies with a cavalier detachment, all Cromwellian justification to the point of the creation of a Mary Sue.

It Is He
It Is He

Undoubtedly, there is much to like about this novel: an intelligent exploration of power, a lovely new version of a familiar story, and a depiction of politics which rescues the politician-as-human-being. Many important events pass in a paragraph; others, far more mundane, take pages. That focus on Cromwell is the beating heart of the book, and if you buy it the novel works. If, like me, you don’t, then the narrative starts to falter. The modern age to which Cromwell plays midwife is indeed a hall of wolves: full of rapacious apetites and unfathomable agendas, no longer governed by a system and home to mere ambition. I like this idea, and yet it is hung so entirely upon its questionable depiction of one man, and fanned so thinly across its other characters and their own stories, that it doesn’t work for me.

Perhaps all this represents an exciting experiment in the historical novel. On the other hand, it risks reading a tad portentously: Cromwell is mythologised whilst the novel tries to pretend to realism. In responding so vigorously to A Man for All Seasons, Mantel has perhaps fallen into the trap of beatifying Cromwell too much. Maybe I’m missing something, but however complex and peopled her tale, it never attains the depth of Middlemarch, a novel which gave each of its voices equal weight. Wolf Hall is instead a fabulation with borrowed supporting structures: a doorstop of a book which ultimately has room for only one perspective. If you like that perspective – and most seem to – then you’ll love the book. I, on the other hand, am a mere curmudgeon: for me, Wolf Hall is ultimately an interesting, but unconvincing, read. The Little Stranger remains my favoured candidate for the Booker.

“We Have Done As Our Predecessors Have Been Wont To Do”

A nice line in bowing...
A nice line in bowing...

Those three Henrican Lord Chancellors – Wolsey, More and Cromwell – seem to hold an endless fascination for historians and fiction writers alike. From Anthony Munday to Robert Bolt, that procession of Thomases has proved fertile ground for speculation. I’m just in the midst of yet another example of this tilling, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. It’s been on my shelves for months, and was shortlisted for the Booker in July – which was probably the kick I needed to actually read the thing. Communicator has already pointed out that Mantel opposes Bolt – in her fiction, Cromwell is the humane moderniser, More the (faintly absurd) medieval hangover.

I haven’t yet read enough of the book – I’m not quite halfway through – to be able to pass judgement as to whether Mantel succeeds in her design to present Cromwell as an accidental politician, a modern spirit in an otherwise alien age. I do so far like, however, the extent to which the intense politicking of the Tudor court is not made the be-all and end-all of the plot: Cromwell’s inner life is here much broader than that, and the depth of the characterisation is strong. It may not, though, ultimately be convincing – More was, it seems unecessary to say, as much a product of his age as either of his predecessors. No signpost to the future, him.

It’s interesting to compare Mantel – though no doubt she would be scandalised by this – to the often close-to-farcical US TV serial, The Tudors. The show makes absolutely no attempt to be historically accurate – it is happy to merge two or more historical figures into one character, collapse time for its own narrative convenience, and most of all makes each and every one of its characters a modern figure in a remote historical age. It is  disjointed, illogical and unintentionally hilarious, but one of its most compelling figures is Thomas Cromwell, played with more than a dash of charisma by James Frain as the ultimate pragmatist – one moment a secret Calvinist, the next a thorough moderate, allied with the Boleyns and then against them, Wolsey’s servant and then his Judas. (In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s loyalty to his first master is stressed again and again.) Unbelievable as it may seem to claim historical fidelity for The Tudors, this feels closer to the truth of the real Cromwell than the ‘oops, I seem to be popular at court again’ career path Mantel has so far given hers.

The Tudors‘ third season begins here in the UK on August 21st, on BBC Two. Wolf Hall is, as they say, in all good bookshops, yadda yadda.