By Joel Fraser
Hilary Mantel, Fourth Estate, 2009
Bring up the Bodies
Hilary Mantel, Fourth Estate, 2012
The Mirror and the Light
Hilary Mantel, Fourth Estate, 2020
In May of last year, a solitary, enigmatic billboard appeared in Leicester Square. It featured a Tudor rose and the words, ‘SO NOW GET UP’. The feverish excitement that it generated is testament to the way in which Hilary Mantel plays with memory; ‘So now get up’ are the words spoken to a young Thomas Cromwell by his abusive father, Walter, at the beginning of Mantel’s 2009 novel Wolf Hall.
Wonderfully economical, these four syllables took readers back to two places simultaneously: firstly, to the year 1500 and a blacksmith’s yard in Putney, where Wolf Hall begins; secondly, to some subjective, idiosyncratic point in time after 2009, reading the first page of Mantel’s novel. The words also pointed forwards, to the then unknown release date of the final instalment of the Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. More than just a marketing stunt, such a confluence of temporal moments is a fitting prelude to the questions that Mantel ponders in her latest novel, published in March with Fourth Estate. Which is to say, as Cromwell reflects on his past throughout the narrative, the reader is drawn into the same process through our own incomplete memories of the earlier novels. Mantel manages our misrememberings such that the distinct timelines of reader, writer and character are set in overlay.
The Mirror and the Light begins with Anne Boleyn’s beheading in 1536, and follows Cromwell’s final four years, charting his relationship with King Henry as well as the increasing power of his enemies. They will eventually prevail: the novel ends, as we know it must, with Cromwell’s own execution. The first two books of the series, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, break from historical and literary tradition in ways that prefigure Mantel’s obsession with memory. Both winners of the Man Booker Prize, they trace the exceptional rise of Thomas Cromwell from the working-class son of a blacksmith to a position as chief advisor to Henry VIII and one of the most powerful men in Tudor England.
Thomas Cromwell has gone down in history as one of the ‘bad guys’. Seen as a social parvenu and an opportunist, he has been recognised as a fantastic political tactician, navigating the complexities of England’s theological via media between Catholicism and Lutheran Protestantism. He has never been credited with much feeling, however. Simon Schama puts it bluntly: ‘Thomas Cromwell is probably the least sentimental Englishman to run the country’. It is this kind of received historical knowledge that Hilary Mantel sought to probe and challenge. Her historical research is scrupulous, and yet within the bounds drawn by the past, she imagines a wholly different character to the one we think we know. Mantel’s Cromwell is haunted by a profound loyalty to his disgraced former master Cardinal Wolsey, scarred by the death of his wife and two daughters, and caught in a conflict between a cynical worldly realism and his genuine faith in the Protestant cause. Wolf Hall seizes upon a historical figure about whom we have little knowledge and recasts him: the mystery of the past becomes creative opportunity.
As part of the canon, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies defy the perception of historical fiction as inferior to and less ‘literary’ than other genres. No two books from the same series have ever won the Booker Prize before; for two historical novels to do so was extraordinary. Mantel’s ability to create tension despite writing about such a popular period of history (she calls the Tudors ‘the great national soap opera’) is a technical feat most on show in her second novel. Bring up the Bodies traces Cromwell’s role in the trial of Anne Boleyn and her supposed circle of lovers. It reads as nail-biting revenge fiction, full of political machinations and uncertainty, reaching a fever-pitch crescendo with the queen’s beheading. And yet we knew all along that Anne had to die. Part of the immediacy of Mantel’s prose emerges from her use of the present tense, rooting us in the moment, breaking through and even exploiting the fact that we know the ending already. As Anne steps up to the scaffold, it is the microscopic details of the present tense that predominate: ‘he [Cromwell] sees she does not know if she should tie the cap’s string beneath her chin—whether it will hold without fastening or whether she has time to make a knot and how many heartbeats she has left in the world’. Mantel describes the intended effect: ‘the present tense forbids hindsight and propels us forward through this world, making it new […] in every unfolding moment’.
This is the foundation on which Mantel has been building for the last eight years. The Mirror and the Light is the culmination of Cromwell’s journey. A life of steady, calculated rise reaches an extraordinary zenith, before a comparatively rapid fall. The 880-page behemoth that constitutes the fruit of this labour offers a meditation on memory and the labyrinthine puzzle of the past that functions in a complex, layered manner.
We begin, as mentioned earlier, in May 1536, with the immediate aftermath of the queen’s beheading: ‘Once the queen’s head is severed’ are the words that bring us once again into Cromwell’s world. Simple enough, but if we look back, we realise that Bring up the Bodies ended months after the execution of Anne Boleyn, meaning that The Mirror and the Light has taken us backwards again, back to the scaffold. Our memory of Bring up the Bodies is immediately put to the test, and we are met with a strange feeling of unfamiliarity as we struggle to re-engage with the Tudor world. This false start presents us from hitting the ground running, and we falter at Mantel’s subtle temporal discrepancy, forced to reflect on the past—our own, and Cromwell’s—in order to remember and reorient ourselves. There is thus a break with the tangible forward momentum that was so notable at the end of both previous novels in the series. Wolf Hall ended with the words ‘Early September. Five days. Wolf Hall’, finally reaching the destination to which the novel had been relentlessly hurtling towards. Bring up the Bodies enacted the same motion, finishing on the lines ‘There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one’. The Mirror and the Light distinguishes itself from its predecessors by immediately reversing this breakneck pace and taking us backwards in time.
Throughout the novel, we get the sense that Cromwell too is forced into reflection as his past catches up with him. He is increasingly beset upon by unwanted memories, forced to question his identity and how he has come to rise to such dizzying political heights. A particularly striking example comes early in the narrative, as the protagonist settles down to his standard five hours of sleep (historians agree that his physical energy and stamina were prodigious) but is afflicted with undesired reflections. The narrative voice purrs, ‘how many lives have we, where we sleep and dream, and lost languages flow back into our mouths?’, before launching into a twisting, episodic description of different phases from Cromwell’s past, writhing and curling ‘through the subsoil of himself’ in an evocation of memories from a half-conscious sleep state of which Proust would have been proud. Cromwell is haunted by his central role in Anne’s death. The voice taunts him, stating: ‘we shall not escape these weeks. They recapitulate, always varied and always fresh, always doing and never done’. Mantel is especially fascinated by the grammatical abyss that separates ‘doing’ and ‘done’, her own present tense increasingly forced into the past and pluperfect to relate flashbacks as the narrative develops. We are given an interpretive clue later on: as Cromwell discusses William Tyndale’s death with the Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, Mantel reminds us that ‘Ambassador Chapuys, you notice, has not exactly said he is dead; he has only let him fall, as it were naturally, into the past tense’. We, too, are seeing a man slowly capitulating, allowing himself to fall into the irresistible past tense of history.
This is the central shift of the novel—and, perhaps, Mantel wonders, of life. Cromwell was once the great political actor, architect of the Boleyn scandal, adept at rewriting history for Henry’s purposes. Now, he sees his own life challenged and rewritten. After a revelatory meeting with Cardinal Wolsey’s illegitimate daughter, we learn that ‘Dorothea has rewritten his [Cromwell’s] story. She has made him strange to himself’. This foreshadows the end sequence of the novel, where Cromwell is interrogated by his enemies as they attempt to manufacture a justification for his execution. Cromwell despairs: ‘they are rewriting my life’.
This is not simply a ‘history is written by the victors’ exposé from Mantel, an attempt to revendicate Cromwell. In a passage of great beauty, Mantel probes deeper into our own misrememberings of self, not just the misreadings (wilful or otherwise) of others:
Don’t look back, he had told the king: yet he too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades, in that hour in winter or summer before they bring in the candles, […] when the page grows dim and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations, so that as the page is turned the old story slides from sight and a strange and slippery confluence of ink begins to flow. You look back into your past and say, is this story mine; this land? […] have I slipped the limits of myself, undone myself, have I forgotten too well […]
The haunting thought ‘is this story mine…?’ throws up questions about our own histories. Who owns them? Whose interpretation of them carries most weight? Do we, and should we, have the final say on ourselves? The magnetic power that such meditations carry comes in part from the fact that we, as readers, are inextricably bound up in the very same questions.
Such questions come from very practical considerations. How well can we remember reading the first two books of the series? For many readers, eight years will have passed since they were last in Cromwell’s mind. The world has changed in ways we could not have imagined since we turned over the final page of Bring up the Bodies. We, too, are ‘guilty of retrospection as the light fades’, and Mantel knows it. The temporal shift backwards a few months at the novel’s inception, as already discussed, has us immediately doubting our memory, unsure of our interpretive skill, even. As Cromwell is besieged by memories that we also half-recall from the earlier novels, we struggle against the sense of our inadequacy as readers. The feeling of powerlessness to retain a novel’s detail, the looming inevitability of forgotten moments, gaps in knowledge which open up and expand with time, swallowing up our understanding of a work, highlighting the endless need for rereading and the lack of time to do so—all this is a double-edged sword, promising inexhaustive hermeneutic potentiality alongside the impossibility of comprehensive, bird’s-eye certainty. Mantel revels in this atmosphere. She says: ‘Unlike the historian, the novelist doesn’t operate through hindsight […] she agrees just to move forward with her characters, moving into the dark’.
Mantel often couches Cromwell’s moments of introspection in literary, self-reflexive language. He reflects on what has been his life’s work: ‘can you make a new England? You can write a new story […] You can write on England, but what was written before keeps showing through’. Mantel, too, reflects on the new story she has created, a Cromwell no one could have imagined before she came along. In an interview after the success of Wolf Hall, she located her interest in Cromwell in history lessons at school, noting that ‘when I began writing, I registered him in my mind as a potential subject. This would have been in the 1970s’. Thus, Mantel’s own childhood memories, her beginnings as a novelist as well as her greatest critical success as a writer, are bound up in Cromwell’s journey. Gabriel García Márquez recounts that, after killing off his beloved character Colonel Aureliano Buendía in his novel Cien años de Soledad, he lay on his bed and wept for hours. One wonders whether Mantel’s experience was similar. After Wolf Hall, Mantel admitted that ‘living with Cromwell has been a good experience so far, but you’ll have to ask me again when I’ve executed him’.
Both writing and reading, in Mantel’s hands, are most exciting and beautiful in the places where ‘the page grows dim, and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations’. Cromwell and his memories become a complex vehicle where the histories of character, reader and author interact and collide. The Mirror and the Light delights in the dizzying, chaotic experience it provides.
JOEL FRASER reads English and French at Oriel College. He sometimes worries that his powers of wit peaked aged 3, when a plumber asked him what his dream job would be and he shouted “dinosaur” and roared.
Art by Tara Kelly