Third book in historical trilogy was worth waiting for

07 April 2020 - 12:32 By Margaret von Klemperer
'The Mirror & the Light' by Hilary Mantel.
'The Mirror & the Light' by Hilary Mantel.
Image: Supplied

Published in the Witness (06/04/2020)

The Mirror & the Light
Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate

Has it been worth the wait? Since the 2012 publication of Bring Up the Bodies, the second volume of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, I have been among the many waiting anxiously for the final book.

It wasn’t that we didn’t know the outcome – anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of Tudor history knows Thomas Cromwell is destined to go the way of many of Henry VIII’s friends, enemies, relations and wives and be executed – but we wanted Mantel’s skilled take on the matter.

And I am happy to say: yes, it has been worth the wait.

The Mirror & the Light opens with the execution of Anne Boleyn. Cromwell, as Henry’s fixer, has been instrumental in bringing this about, but, as with so many of his actions, not from conviction but through his ability to think on his feet and react to the whims of his terrifyingly unpredictable master.

However, his position is a precarious one: he has no great family or aristocratic background behind him. He is self-made, from the humblest of roots, ruthless, dangerous but deeply thoughtful. Historically, Cromwell has always been something of an enigma: Hans Holbein’s portrait, piggy-eyed and jowly, has played into the myth.

So Mantel has had space to create a version of her central character which is completely believable, frightening, but also able to command our sympathy and even our affection. Right from the start she builds an atmosphere of danger around Cromwell, even when he seems all-powerful.

All the way through she ratchets up the tension of life lived on a knife-edge, of a world that moves from one crisis to another and inevitably wears down the protagonist. Whether it is Henry’s marital adventures, civil unrest, warring factions at the court, it all lands at Cromwell’s door. And who can he trust?

The English politics of the 16th century were bedevilled by religion and a dubiously legitimate regime. Henry was only the second Tudor monarch, and the Tudor dynasty was by no means assured. Turbulent times call for drastic measures, and while Cromwell was expected to supply them, he was always aware they could be turned on him. More and more as time wears on, he thinks back to his violent and unloved childhood and to his self-creation while a wanderer in Europe. Maybe it explains him – though does it excuse him? It is for the reader to decide.

Mantel won the Booker prize for both preceding volumes. Of course the question is being asked: Will she win it again? The length of the book, at nearly 900 pages, may be a problem, and much as I loved it, it does flag a little in the middle. But I hope she does win, for the entire trilogy is a monumental achievement, and shows how compelling and brilliant historical fiction can be in the right hands.

Some years ago, Pat Barker won for The Ghost Road, the concluding part of her Regeneration trilogy. She was an outsider in the literary world, and it was perhaps an acknowledgement that she should have won for Regeneration, still to my mind the finest historical novel of World War 1. Mantel is an insider: I hope that will give her well-deserved wins for all three parts of her trilogy.