If you are a fan of historical fiction, it is hard to do better than Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Both won the Man Booker Prize. As that esteemed literary critic Adam Sandler would say: not too shabby. The third and final book in this sympathetic treatment of Thomas Cromwell is The Mirror and the Light. It did not win the Man Booker Prize. Probably didn’t come close.
Who is Thomas Cromwell, you ask. Congratulations! You aren’t English. Moreover, you are probably an upstanding citizen living a meaningful and productive life.
Thomas Cromwell lived in the first half of the 1500s. But you don’t need to be familiar with the English Reformation to enjoy these books. Wolf Hall describes Cromwell’s brutal childhood and how he rose from obscurity to become Henry VIII’s most influential adviser. His chief adversary is Sir Thomas More, who is opposed to Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. The book ends with More’s execution. Cromwell has accumulated wealth, power, and a potent ally in Anne Boleyn.
Bring Up the Bodies opens with Henry married to Anne. However, Henry soon grows tired of her and falls in love with Jane Seymour. Cromwell’s alliance with Anne is now problematic, as Henry expects Cromwell to find a way to get rid of her so he can marry Jane. Cromwell accomplishes this and in doing so manages to have some of his political enemies executed as well. But, of course, Anne must lose her head too. The book ends with Anne’s execution and Cromwell at the height of his power and influence.
Anyone familiar with Greek tragedy knows this is where it all unravels for Cromwell – if only the unraveling wasn’t so plodding. Welcome to The Mirror and the Light, which limps along to Cromwell’s demise.
The first 2 books are stellar. Cromwell’s adversaries (Thomas More and Anne Boleyn) are worthy opponents and truly challenge him. In The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell’s only real adversary is himself, and he makes several mistakes that ultimately lead to his execution. It just takes a long time to get there.
The history of this time is fascinating, and Ms. Mantel has certainly done her research. Just as importantly, she knows how to tell a compelling story – at least she does in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Cromwell had an eventful life. But ultimately his livelihood (and his life) depended on the whims of a paranoid, superstitious, and mercurial monarch. As one character describes Cromwell’s predicament: “[y]our whole life depends on the next beat of Henry’s heart, and your future on his smile or frown.” Fortunately, we live in a time when monarchs don’t have the power or inclination to ruin people’s lives. Just ask England.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor