The Mirror and the Light By Hilary Mantel
Reviewed by Charis Caputo
In 2013, Hilary Mantel caused a bit of a scandal in the British press when she called Kate Middleton “a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own,” her “only point and purpose being to give birth. The comments were made in a lecture on the history of the royal body for the London Review of Books, in which Mantel decimates the monarchy as an antiquated, patriarchal institution that turns persons into “carriers of bloodlines” and “collections of organs.” Even today, she argues, “a royal lady is a royal vagina.”
And no reign was more “gynecological” than that of Henry VIII, a king who destroyed one wife after another in his quest for a viable male heir. Thus, Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, though taking place entirely and deeply in the consciousness of the unlikely protagonist Thomas Cromwell (the son of an abusive blacksmith, who transcended his common upbringing to serve as Henry’s secretary and right-hand advisor during the decade that spanned the king’s annulment from Catherine of Aragon, consequent break with the pope, and subsequent three marriages) is primarily a story about gender, sexuality, and the reproductive body. As Cromwell himself puts it: “It’s all about women. What else is it about?”
Indeed, great swaths of the series’ first two books are devoted to debate over Catherine’s hymen (the annulment rested on proving she was not a virgin at the time of marriage) and Anne Boleyn’s deviant sexual appetites. The Mirror and the Light, the trilogy’s much anticipated conclusion, picks up at the moment the preceding novel left off: Anne Boleyn— the woman whom Henry broke with Rome to marry only three years prior— has just been executed for treason and adultery, a fate that Cromwell brought about with great expedience after the King grew tired of her disobedient attitude and failure to produce a son. This concluding novel traces Cromwell’s fall from the pinnacle of his power. Here we see him not only as Henry’s chief advisor, but simultaneously his Lord Privy Seal and Chancellor of the Exchequer. In this installment, Henry makes Cromwell a Baron, a member of the Garter, and, in the midst of civil unrest, his chief scapegoat. It is a moving narrative arc. Mantel has turned the oft-vilified Cromwell into a bizarrely compelling and omnicompetent hero of great psychological complexity, but here we witness his entanglement in the web of his own conflicting loyalties and realpolitik as he seems to take on a chief duty he does not relish or desire: “to get the king new wives and dispose of the old.”
Mantel, as a literary mind, is difficult to categorize. She is not just a skillful or stylish or insightful novelist—though she is all of those. She is what I would call a great novelist, “a prolific, protean figure,” as The Guardian has put it, one “who doesn’t fit many of the established pigeonholes for women writers.” Her material is both magisterial and intimate, historical and contemporary, ranging from European political history to 1980s Saudi Arabia to her own struggles with severe endometriosis. She never intended to pursue writing as a career until her mid-twenties, when, as the wife of a geologist researching in Botswana, she began her first novel: A Place of Greater Safety, a 700-plus-page fictional account of the French Revolution that took her a decade to write and a couple of decades to publish. In a Paris Review interview, she claims, “I only became a novelist because I thought I had missed my chance to become a historian.” Often referred to as a “writer’s writer,” Mantel achieved literary-star status about thirty years into her career with the publication of Wolf Hall in 2009 and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies in 2013, two bestsellers that garnered her two Man Booker prizes. But if Mantel is no longer just a writer’s writer, you might still say she is a historian’s writer. Part of what makes the Wolf Hall trilogy so extraordinary is its fidelity to historical detail. Although the language is updated to strike a balance between authenticity and contemporary clarity—characters speak of women’s “courses” and “quims,” but you won’t see any thee’s, thou’s, or prithee’s—major events are never manufactured or distorted, and almost all characters are created from actual persons in the historical record. Mantel engages the past on its own terms, a less-than-fashionable approach in an era when most historical fiction of literary status uses speculative or postmodern distortions to elide the question of accuracy altogether. Nor does Wolf Hall have much in common with popular historical fiction. The novels’ sensory description is immersive and rich—vivid renderings of fine garments and cloth provide much sensual and thematic texture to The Mirror and the Light—yet tightly controlled, never a mere showcase of the author ’s research, as in the unwieldy popular fiction of, say, Diana Gabaldon. And unlike most novels about the Tudors, Mantel’s are not romances. There is plenty of sexual intrigue, but no bodice ripping to speak of, and indeed one The Royal Vagina The Mirror and the Light By Hilary Mantel New York, NY; Henry Holt and Company, 2020, 754 pp., $30.00, hardcover Reviewed by Charis Caputo of Cromwell’s gifts is to wrangle prurient stories of incest and cuckoldry into banal matters of law rather than of heart or libido.
Mantel herself sees her approach to historical fiction as sui generis. She makes the fiction flexible, fluid, allowing it to conform to events as they really happened, in all their awkwardness, without manufacturing drama or carving facts into a shapely narrative. Perhaps this is why the series clocks in at nearly 2,000 pages and still never feels longwinded. Her prose is relentlessly stylish, but her storytelling is fluid in the way that life is. In terms of genre, I think of the Cromwell novels as a cross between a classical tragedy that traces the rise and fall of its flawed hero; a gangster or noir story punctuated by a series of backroom deals made by unlikely allies; and a sprawling social novel that touches all spheres of sixteenth-century England—domestic, political, religious— sometimes all at once, as in this remarkable passage that pulls back from Cromwell’s dinner table to depict an imagined community in temporal and spiritual crisis:
They eat in contemplative silence: spiced venison, teal, partridges, and oranges thinsliced like sunbursts. A shaft of light makes its way over the fallen snow, picking a path to the year ahead. The court rides through the city of Westminster and east to Greenwich, a moving trail of darkness against the frost. The Thames is a long glimmer of ice: a road in a frozen desert, a trail into our future, a highway for our God.
The past, here, is a fully imagined universe, not a world seen only through some lens of the present. And thus it would not feel entirely accurate to call The Mirror and the Light a feminist novel. Indeed, the question of women and their private realities— so underrepresented in the historical record—poses a significant problem to Mantel’s aesthetics of the past. By her own admission, she labored to incorporate satisfying female characters into her revisions of A Place of Greater Safety. And yet women’s bodies constitute perhaps the most continuous theme of Mantel’s work. Throughout her career, she has written extensively and forcefully about the female body as sexual and reproductive object, both in fiction and memoir.
The hyper-observant Cromwell is himself sensitive to the subtlest details of women’s bodies and routines. In the novel’s opening pages, he notes how Anne’s ladies protect her lifeless body from male hands. He is ever attuned to any indications of pregnancy in queens and their ladies: the “hint of a double chin,” the unlacing of bodices. He navigates the court gossip about Henry’s “bedwork,” through which we get some of the novel’s funniest lines (going to bed with Henry is like “being slobbered over by a mastiff pup”), and pays so much attention to ladies’ needlework that he tells Queen Jane, “I will soon be so expert I’ll be able to ply the needle myself.” When Jane begins the childbirth that will prove fatal, Cromwell muses: “What is a woman’s life? Do not think, because she is not a man, she does not fight. The bedchamber is her tilting ground, where she shows her colors, and her theatre of war is the sealed room where she gives birth.”
It is difficult to think of the man responsible for Anne Boleyn’s execution as a great respecter of women, and yet, in Mantel’s imagining, Anne’s elimination is purely pragmatic for Cromwell, who regards her in the earlier novels as a kind of kindred spirit—a descendent of merchants who rose to nobility, a power player, a social climber wholly dependent on the favor of the king. His first blunder in this concluding novel is to scold his social superiors for not showing proper respect at her execution. Subsequently, his protection of various women puts him repeatedly at risk of Henry’s displeasure. The women he protects include the king’s daughter Mary, the king’s cousin (who has secretly married a man who will not enhance the royal stock), and his own illegitimate daughter, one of the series’ only purely invented characters, who appears as a kind of specter of a road not taken, a quieter, more domestic, more female-centric life.
Very early in the series, Cromwell’s wife and two legitimate daughters are carried off by successive waves of plague in brisk, heartbreaking scenes that convey the precarity of early modern life. Near the end of the series, he recalls wistfully that his household, before their deaths, had been “entirely given over to women.” Indeed, the Cromwell Mantel first introduced us to doted on his daughters, even teaching the eldest to read. He was a tender father and husband, a man bent on curbing his own worst tendencies in order not to pass on the violence his own father inflicted on him as a boy. He wondered respectfully at his wife’s sympathy for Queen Catherine: “Possibly it’s something women do: spend time imagining what it’s like to be each other. One can learn from that.” And even if Cromwell, more and more, weaponizes this kind of feminine sympathy, using it to recruit spies and manipulate witnesses, he does in fact see women as fully interior people.
In the end, Cromwell is deeply ambivalent towards women’s power, as he is deeply ambivalent towards hierarchy in general. In this way, the novels get not only at the materiality of the period, but its consciousness, in a way historical fiction rarely succeeds in doing. Cromwell and his contemporaries inhabit a cosmos that is ordered by successive levels of hierarchy: “the compacts that hold the world together … between ruler and ruled …between husband and wife.” To subvert these compacts is to sew cosmic chaos. And yet, sixteenth-century England was a weird, fluid place, a liminal culture negotiating absolutism and protocapitalism, magic and science, Catholicism and Protestantism. Cromwell instrumentalizes reformed religion, but he believes in it, too. In his subaltern boyhood, he internalized the egalitarian ethos of the gospelers: “God regards every sparrow that falls. From listening at a sermon, he recalled this text by heart.” It is perhaps partly this belief in his own spiritual equality that allows Cromwell to rise higher than any common man in England ever had. And yet, when his daughter asks him why he serves a king he does not agree with, he answers: “Who else should I serve? A man cannot be masterless.”
It is this deference to hierarchy, not just pragmatism or ambition, that allows Cromwell to destroy the real and symbolic body of a queen when it proves no longer useful to the realm. Of course, he too loses the king’s favor, gets sucked into the very absolutist machine he has helped to create. Yet the dazzling light of his own ambiguous consciousness persists into his last moments—the closing pages of The Mirror and the Light are some of the most moving free indirect discourse I have ever read—and he thinks repeatedly of Anne as he resigns himself to the same fate to which he consigned her. In the end, this is one of the greatest questions of the series: male or female, royal or common, in a world where life is cheap and bodies are instruments of power, what does it mean to have a personality of one’s own?
Charis Caputo is an MFA student in fiction at NYU and an editorial assistant for the Women’s Review of Books. She holds an MA in history from Loyola University Chicago.