The Mirror & the Light
March 10, 2020 7:58 PM - by Hilary Mantel - Subscribe

“If you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?” With The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with her peerless, Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a...

Slightly premature post perhaps, as it's 800 pages and only released today, but I can't be the only one who bought it instantly and is tearing through it?
posted by praemunire (66 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My library copy is in tomorrow, very excited!
posted by Chrysostom at 9:31 PM on March 10, 2020

Just started yesterday--already so good!!
posted by n. moon at 10:41 AM on March 11, 2020

It's interesting that prior to writing this one she ended up having a lot of conversations with Ben Miles (play Cromwell, also reading this one), not Mark Rylance (TV Cromwell). Personally I thought Miles's was closer to the mark, anyway.
posted by praemunire at 12:38 PM on March 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Reading it now... and I am an occasional last sentence reader, way before the ending. Must persevere.
As if I don't know how this ends. But this go around (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies) I have Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis in my head.
I hope there is a comparable mini-series on PBS with the same cast. Ah ha... Town and Country Magazine says it is so, but I cannot read this until 757 pages from now. Perhaps a spoiler.
Pulling up the blankets now.
posted by TrishaU at 2:22 PM on March 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

I reread the first two to prepare for this, and I could feel the ending of this one so clearly embedded in the beginning of the first that I actually got sad. (I mean, presentation, obviously the facts are more or less fixed.) Guess I'll see in a couple of days.
posted by praemunire at 2:58 PM on March 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

"She falters in the direction of her king, her court, her future. She whispers as she goes, 'He wants me to ride down to Dover with him, and see the fortifications.'" What a terrific scene! It called to mind Elvis Costello's "When I Was Cruel No. 2," a dissection of the scene, observed with a hint of poison.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:13 PM on March 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

Fave highlight so far: "Bias of Priene: pleistoi anthropoi kakoi, most men are bad."
posted by whuppy at 4:40 PM on March 12, 2020

"Henry likes to utter his sin and be forgiven. He is sincerely sorry, he will not do it again. And in this case perhaps he will not. The temptation to cut off your wife's head does not arise every year."
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:17 PM on March 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

Oh, that bit with Wolsey's daughter. Oh. I know some people took against Wolf Hall because their own political or religious beliefs make them sensitive to anything that might be appearing to glorify Cromwell and dodging his responsibility for certain actions, and I myself was initially irritated by the "Wolsey burns books. More will burn men" statement, because, yeah, in Tudor England the church didn't have the authority to execute people. You actually did have to hand people over to the state for execution for any cause, including heresy. But the more I thought about Wolf Hall, the more I thought that Cromwell's absences or vaguenesses at key events was meant to be quasi-intentional, suggesting a technique of a certain internal distancing from responsibility (even if it was improbable in some cases that it could've been deliberate, as with not being home the day his wife died). Now we have some of those events revisited or echoed with the guilt layered back in.
posted by praemunire at 8:59 PM on March 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

sI last read Mantel in these books in 2012. Since then much of my life and in the lives of persons in the US and UK has changed. I cannot read this book without understanding Mantel to be standing in empathic judgement over Cromwell for having enabled monstrosity.

I also cannot shed Rylance’s voice as Thomas echoing internally in my head as I read Mantel’s words.

A side note. I read the first two books before meeting my birth mother, whose first name is “Courtenay.” It’s a family name, and she’s a little vague on the provenance. Her mother’s maiden name is Montague. I am not at all vague on the provenance, having been highly engaged in learning everything I can about my maternal and paternal birth families. Both names stem from the courtier families which appear in all three books, and which would have been simply background noise to me eight years ago. Now it’s actively distracting.
posted by mwhybark at 3:33 PM on March 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

“‘By God, a councillor already,’ Fitz says. He snatches Riche’s hat off and lopes the length of the chamber, throwing it up to the Tudor roses in the ceiling. Is that a stray HA-HA lurking up there? The Lord Chancellor, loyal soul, is squinting up and craning his neck.”

For whatever reason this puts me in mind of Pynchon. Active third-person, I guess.
posted by mwhybark at 9:56 PM on March 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

I cannot read this book without understanding Mantel to be standing in empathic judgement over Cromwell for having enabled monstrosity.

Excellent observation. Seconding the Pynchon. This time around, the voice is of Cromwell, but also apart from him in a way that differs from the two previous books. (I imagine it as a wry ghost Cromwell, recounting events, his afterlife conscience still eclipsed by his perceptiveness.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:25 AM on March 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Mantel on Wolsey, the Grauniad, 2009.

I read the first two books in e-book format but do not recall constantly flitting off to Google for backgrounders as I am doing with this.
posted by mwhybark at 9:05 PM on March 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you're interested in reading more about the historical Cromwell, Tracy Borman's bio is fine, if a bit pedestrian. MacCulloch's is more entertaining, but spends a lot of time advancing his thesis that religion was more personally important to Cromwell than generally thought
posted by Chrysostom at 9:56 AM on March 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

enjoying the writing as always

I keep chuckling, or laughing out loud with joy over some turn of phrase or other, sometimes at Cromwell’s little internal asides, sometimes at Mantel’s superb prose, and my wife keeps asking me “what, what” because the reactions are the same social expression I make when I see a funny meme or whatever. I suppose I can just read the bit aloud next time, possibly that is the correct response.
posted by mwhybark at 10:17 AM on March 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm not finding it that hard but I have a professional background in this stuff.

MacCulloch's biography in its entirety would be, I think, tough reading for a lay reader with no interest in seeing how historians eke out interpretations from limited facts and/or Tudor administrative procedure.
posted by praemunire at 12:57 PM on March 15, 2020

I feel that I just hit the first major misstep in the book--the handling of the Gregory Wedding Confusion Incident. I can imagine Gregory betraying a fleeting reaction to that effect, I do not buy the explicit lecture.
posted by praemunire at 12:58 PM on March 15, 2020

Eh, I didn't struggle with MacCulloch, but I've read several of his books previously.
posted by Chrysostom at 4:05 PM on March 15, 2020

I do not buy the explicit lecture.

Have just finished the scene with Wolsey's daughter. It seems that more than one character reads Cromwell the lesson they think he should learn.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:30 PM on March 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

I don't buy Gregory as the lecturer, especially as the whole source of the awkwardness was that Cromwell could've married her himself if he'd had any real inclination to. Gregory was therefore warning him off seducing his wife just because he was his wife. That's...a hell of a tack for mild Gregory to take explicitly (again, as opposed to an irrational fear betrayed in an unguarded moment of reaction somewhere), and especially given this version of Cromwell's general restraint in sexual matters.
posted by praemunire at 4:51 PM on March 16, 2020

The people around him don’t seem to think he has much restraint. They are constantly ribbing him about him bedding tavern wenches while on the road. He only tells us about how much he misses his wife and how this woman and that give him lingering glances and whatnot. It’s quite rare that he narrates himself in physical self-expression, as he does when he strips the chain of office from a fellow Councillor. He is omissive.
posted by mwhybark at 5:03 PM on March 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

They are constantly ribbing him about him bedding tavern wenches while on the road.

Those are jokes. Like the Cardinal used to make. It's the kind of joke that's much funnier if it's the opposite of the truth. That one woman on the road to Kimbolton is, as far as we know, the only woman he's slept with since Johane.
posted by praemunire at 6:19 PM on March 16, 2020

This is true. He is also omissive.
posted by mwhybark at 7:59 PM on March 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'd need to see some evidence he would feel particularly bad about extramarital sex before I'd see a need to infer a vast recent sexual history he's just failed to mention. The only woman he's slept with that he seems to feel guilty over is Johane, for the obvious personal reasons. He remembers Anselma without guilt, also the Cypriot lady.
posted by praemunire at 10:33 PM on March 16, 2020

He is also omissive. Yes, he is. And so lonely.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:30 AM on March 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

That bit revisiting the Lollard burning ended me, I am now deceased.
posted by praemunire at 2:53 PM on March 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

You are well ahead of me. Is she unwinding things, as in a fugue? One would think the temptation would hard to resist.
posted by mwhybark at 7:12 PM on March 17, 2020

There is a lot of deliberate revisiting of events which either happened or were already described in the first two books. Past and present keep melting together. It's got quite a different effect from the choppy timeline of #1; it makes me feel like Cromwell is slowly disintegrating.
posted by praemunire at 7:51 PM on March 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

it makes me feel like Cromwell is slowly disintegrating

Thomas Cromwell has come unstuck in time.

I joke, but I swear there was a passage about the Thames that reminded me so much of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:41 AM on March 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

‘Who did that?’ Walter said, when he took his injuries home. ‘All angels help me,’ he said, when he heard the story. ‘Next time someone invites you to a robbery, say no in a civil fashion. Tell them you’ve a job on somewhere else – it’s only common courtesy.’
posted by mwhybark at 3:22 PM on March 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

Long ago in Venice he bought this book, trusting sometime he would have leisure for study. It is from the Aldus workshop, with his dolphin mark: clean, though one page marred by a thumbprint from its first owner. Sometimes he wonders who he was, and why he would part with such a work. Perhaps he is dead and his heirs sold his book, thumbprint and all. Or perhaps he lost interest in the ancient world and turned his mind back to business; tomorrow morning he will be strolling to the piazza with a basket and a street-child to carry it, shopping for olives and pumpkins, pine-nuts and garlic.

I love this image.
posted by mwhybark at 11:13 PM on March 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

Thank you to everybody participating in this thread. It has been great fun to discover this book with you. I love seeing which passages strike you, and appreciate the comment-as-you-read approach--helpful, I think, for such a long book. These are strange days ("The morning’s circumstances are new and there are no rules to guide us" is apt), and I have appreciated your companionship.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:33 AM on March 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

It's interesting to see how his religiosity has increased. He was always an evangelical (in the sense early modern historians use the word), but was content to serve Cardinal Wolsey and is not shown as being particularly aggressive in promoting change in doctrine (as opposed to administration) prior to Anne's fall. Now he's staring down Becket's skull and unable to bring himself to publicly question Lambert at the hearing.
posted by praemunire at 1:13 PM on March 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

Holbein sketching studies of Henry sent me off to Google yet again. What an impeccable hand, what perfection of line. I remember being aware that Mantel appeared occasionally to be writing directly from this or that painting, and of this or that painting, notably the Cromwell and More’s family but here she’s teasing us by stepping into the skin of the portraitist, her hand sure, her line strong.
posted by mwhybark at 10:37 PM on March 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

The More and Cromwell portraits are very well-known paintings of Holbein's. In better days you can come see them in the same room (one of the finest rooms of art in the U.S., also featuring Bellini's St. Francis in Ecstasy) at the Frick in NYC. The original of the Henry VIII portrait was destroyed, but survived in copies.

More indirectly alluded to is Holbein's great The Ambassadors, which depicts Jean de Dinteville (and another) and dominates its gallery at the National Gallery in London.
posted by praemunire at 1:04 PM on March 21, 2020

I’ve seen all three in person! I’m trying to recall how I saw The Ambassadors, which fascinated me as a child because of the wacky skull in it. I feel like I saw it once by itself at the Smithsonian and then also in London; I wonder if there are copies. My muddled recollection is in one locale you could walk through a doorway beneath the painting which afforded a forced-perspective view of the skull, and in the other it was very hard to get into the right position as it was hung more conventionally at eye-level.
posted by mwhybark at 7:03 AM on March 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

God, I can't even imagine the effort that would be required to move that beast safely.
posted by praemunire at 8:58 PM on March 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

I’ve been sort of desutorily looking for traces of a US tour around either 1999 or 2012, which were my most recent jaunts about the Mall in DC. I have a very clear memory of walking past a bunch of mostly-closed galleries, I think associated with the National Portrait Gallery, and glancing to my right into a room with a single painting at eye level, the Ambassadors, which led me to halt my stride unexpectedly and question my perception, but no, it was that painting, and BOY did I eyeball it. It’s such a distinct, yet improbable, memory. My traveling companions were my parents and my wife, none of. whom had had a childhood fascination with the work. I just kept laughing in in incredulity.
posted by mwhybark at 10:43 PM on March 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh my, Gregory's wedding lecture. That was...underwritten? I feel like I didn't get Cromwell's internal airbag going off, his numbness, his clinical observations of Gregory's tone or eyes or stance; description but not perception or the memory palace rounding on him. (Where is Wolsey's ghost to chuckle and remind Cromwell that he has raised a son acutely aware of the politics of marriages? Walter with a dig about filial ingratitude?) Minor quibble in this massive and fascinating book, but yes, an unusual misstep.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:32 AM on March 23, 2020

Cromwell considers Launde as the houses are rolled up:

In dark weather he dreams of the garden arbour, of the drifting petals of the rose, pearl-white and blush-pink. He dreams of violets, hearts-ease, and the blue stars of the pervink, or periwinkle, used by our maids as lovers’ knots; in Italy they weave them into garlands for condemned men.
posted by mwhybark at 11:54 PM on March 23, 2020 [3 favorites]

I'm getting near the end and I'm turning each page more slowly and with increased trepidation.
posted by praemunire at 9:32 AM on March 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Still in progress, but I feel this one really could have been tightened up 10 or 15%. It's much longer than the prior volumes, and I don't know that it needed to be.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:32 PM on March 24, 2020

I have some theories about historical events and structure, but I'll save them for when I'm done.

Just read the arrest and my heart is still pounding. It reminded me more than anything of the end of Darkness at Noon, the way time slowed.
posted by praemunire at 9:40 PM on March 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

My mind keeps sliding away from Tom, given current events. I am about 7/8s in, so I am not too far behind praemunire.

I presume that there had been an extensive book tour slated which has now been called off. I sure do hope someone sits down with Ms. Mantel and gets into her process on this, on instantiating him.

Chrysostom, I guess? I read both the prior books as in order, but without intervening reading material, and in electronic format, so I don’t have a sense of this being longer. It feels like the last half of one long book.
posted by mwhybark at 9:56 PM on March 24, 2020

You can write on England, but what was written before keeps showing through, inscribed on the rocks and carried on floodwater, surfacing from deep cold wells. It’s not just the saints and martyrs who claim the country, it’s those who came before them: the dwarves dug into ditches, the sprites who sing in the breeze, the demons bricked into culverts and buried under bridges; the bones under your floor.

and so Mantel joins Sinclair and Moore as a psychogeographer of England. I suppose this was there in the earlier books, or perhaps implicit in her imagining of Cromwell as driven to avenge slights on Wolsey and his childhood traumas around fire.
posted by mwhybark at 10:03 PM on March 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

There's quite a bit of that in the earlier books, though it's sort of tucked in odd narratorial incursions.

Well, lauda finem. Grateful for about 45 minutes this evening when I could think of nothing else.
posted by praemunire at 11:04 PM on March 24, 2020

and so Mantel joins Sinclair and Moore as a psychogeographer of England

"Englishmen of every shire are wedded to what their nurses told them. They do not like to think too hard, or disturb the plan of the world that exists inside their heads, and they will not accept change unless it puts them in better ease."
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:18 AM on March 25, 2020

Just a wonderful job of sandbagging and blindsiding at the end. In the buildup to the arrest, she didn't convey that that he perceived anything as too amiss. Certainly a few fires needing to be put out, a few setbacks to be dealt with, etc. All in a day's work for him, Cromwell. Was he constantly mindful of the possibility every waking moment so it just became background noise? Did he see the arrest as sudden? The betrayals inevitable?
posted by whuppy at 5:31 PM on March 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is the part that made me cry:

He kneels. He makes his prayer. Drumbeats. La zombero boro borombeta...Blink of red. He thinks, this is all I have to do: follow my master, this and no more. Reach out your hand to find the train of his robe. Look for the spill of scarlet, follow.

He eases himself down to die. He thinks, others can do it and so can I.

posted by praemunire at 11:36 AM on March 26, 2020 [4 favorites]

Ach, Prae! I come to it and blind myself to your citation!

I could not do it again: the years of sleepless toil, the brute moral deformation, the axe-work.

He sees it as Mantel asks us to.

I determined to see it done tonight, and I will.
posted by mwhybark at 12:22 AM on March 27, 2020

... the law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future.
posted by mwhybark at 12:29 AM on March 27, 2020 [5 favorites]

To what ever degree his vision, experience, and end is Thomas and not Hilary is factually clear but conceptually unknowable, Christophe self-assigning, quite properly and acutely, his patronym as Cremuel more or less did me in.
posted by mwhybark at 1:54 AM on March 27, 2020

Re-upping Mantel's 2013 essay for LRB, "Royal Bodies."
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:36 AM on March 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

Mantel on Wolsey, The Guardian, 2009.

I did not chase down any of this at the time I read the first two books.
posted by mwhybark at 7:31 PM on March 27, 2020

Mantel, LRB, “How To Be a Tudor: Can a King Have Friends?” March, 2016. A review of a bio of Tudor courtier Charles Brandon that I can’t be arsed to include a link about in this comment, because this comment is further adoration of Mantel’s prose.

“Henry knew Charles and his sister were englamoured by each other”. Not enamored, englamored. God damn, I hope someone is ginned up to sluice cash at her to provide us a reliable stream of this sort of precision and engagement with, fuck I don’t even know if I care if it’s about history stuff. The review praises the book and acknowledges it as an important source, in a distant way. But mostly she uses the opportunity as a way to write a wonderful, surgical essay about the subject at the heart of her writerly expression.

Oh man, somebody fund a Mantel-hosted BBC/PBS series on this era. Maybe that’s a bad idea. But I would pay close attention.
posted by mwhybark at 2:50 PM on March 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Charles Brandon: Henry VIII’s Closest Friend, by Steven Gunn.

Amazon link per site custom, but perhaps it is time to prefer Abe or something? Maybe I missed a MeTa.
posted by mwhybark at 2:53 PM on March 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

The New Yorker wasn't too impressed.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:24 PM on March 29, 2020

I wept my way through the last two pages. Cromwell's mind is alive, even to the last.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:54 PM on April 1, 2020

I just finished and I'm pretty shell-shocked. The mood of the last hundred pages has cast a pall over my entire morning.

My constant thought, throughout the middle of the book, as Crumb and the other councilors tried to guide and appease Henry at every turn, was that no matter how well researched these passages must be, Mantel's depictions of Henry's insatiable narcissism must, in some way, be colored by Trump.

I too sought wikipedia, google and other sources many times throughout, but every other source wants of Mantel's deft touch a bringing the scene to life.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:57 AM on April 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

I do think that this book allows for a reckoning with Cromwell that the others didn't. Mantel's wonderful writing and deep empathy for her subject keep us sympathizing with him to the end, but she also leaves us a bit more to chew on. In memories of Putney, instead of young Cromwell getting kicked around by his mean old dad we see him committing cold blooded murder. And we're only seeing Cromwell's own (distorted, reflected) version of events -- were actual events even worse than what's recalled? We also get an explicit reflection on Thomas More's execution, and we're forced to wonder whether Cromwell's execution is any less just than More's.

The key in this book is that earlier in the series we mostly just have to take Cromwell's word for everything. Now that we -- we, the reader -- have lived through a decade of real time alongside Cromwell, we have a better ability to compare his later interpretation of past events against his motivations at the time. Should we doubt how clever he actually was in setting up the marriage to Jane Seymour due to how ham-handed he was in forcing the marriage to Anna? I look forward to reading all three books in quick succession try to pick out examples of this.

I've never read anything quite like these books and I'll miss Thomas Cromwell as much as I'll miss the writing. A small consolation is that I still have A Place of Greater Safety to read, but maybe I should save it until the next pandemic.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 11:35 AM on May 4, 2020 [4 favorites]

Here's something I just came across that I don't think is directly mentioned in the books: Mantel refers multiple times to the Cornish choughs on Cromwell's coat of arms being derived from Wolsey's arms. From wikipedia:

The Cornish choughs, or "beckets" as they are sometimes known, are a reference to Wolsey's namesake, Thomas Becket.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 1:02 PM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Off topic, I guess, but I liked A Place of Greater Safety quite a bit.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:40 PM on May 4, 2020

Re-upping Mantel's 2013 essay for LRB, "Royal Bodies."

This has another whole layer in the light of Meghan Markle's royal career.
posted by BibiRose at 6:27 AM on May 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

great, thoughtful comment, coyote. One assumes she was aware of the mapped time aspect; it had not occurred to me. I definitely felt, as mentioned upthread, that she must have been rewriting in real time as the tidal changes of Brexit, Trump, and Boris rolled inland.

Ha ha, we can only hope for a novelette on Pepys and the plague now, innit?
posted by mwhybark at 6:15 PM on May 5, 2020

NYRB review, with amusing illo.
posted by mwhybark at 1:04 AM on May 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

I thought this was a masterpiece. The writing was beautiful, of course. But I especially loved the way Mantel surrounded Cromwell with memories and ghosts, reminiscent of real life, the way our minds circle between the past, present, and future. That reminded me of Morrison’s Beloved.

To me, Gregory’s wedding scene was a warning to the reader that Cromwell can be blindsided, and may not see those close to him as clearly as the reader thinks. And that those close to him can mistake his intentions as well. You can feel his judgment slipping more and more through the book, like his mind is moving a little too quickly. You know there must be a fatal mistake coming, and I kept thinking, slow down, be careful. He didn’t manage to keep himself still, like Wyatt and the lion.

Mantel's depictions of Henry's insatiable narcissism must, in some way, be colored by Trump.

It was a real trip living through covid-19 in the U.S. while reading this novel and watching The Sopranos to pass the time.
posted by sallybrown at 2:07 PM on June 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

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