The Mirror & the Light

Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, £25

Review by Rosemary Goring

The final volume of Hilary Mantel's magisterial trilogy about Henry VIII's remorseless minister Thomas Cromwell opens with a reprise of Anne Boleyn's execution.

The previous book, Bring Up the Bodies, ended with her head being sliced off by an executioner from Calais. In this reminder of what went before, Cromwell, "the second man in England" and soon to be Lord Privy Seal, speaks to the executioner, who shows him his blade. The sword's inscription reads Speculum justitiae – the mirror of justice. The scene it left was gory in the extreme, but it might have been much worse. Thanks to Cromwell's intervention Anne Boleyn was given a mercifully swift end. Had he been a more vengeful man, she would have died in flames.

In life, the pair had been bitter foes, an enmity that does not end with her beheading: "She may be dead, he thinks, but she can still ruin me." Paranoid he is not. Now onto his third wife, Henry is more dangerous than ever. "Do not turn your back on the king," Cromwell writes in a secret book of advice for his son and nephew. "This is more than protocol."

The Mirror & the Light is full of reflections, some real, many from memory. The concluding part of Mantel's monumental exploration of power and those who wield it is minutely detailed, as scrupulously accurate in what it decides to show as an academic work, but suffused with literary artifice. For some, there will be too much history, too many personalities, family trees and affairs of state to allow the novel to breathe. For others, the sheer scale and compulsive weight of Mantel's enterprise will carry them over the excess of facts and events. Excessively closely wrought though it feels, Mantel's trilogy creates a portrait of an individual so intensely felt and vivid, so three-dimensional and exhaustive, he seems to stand at your side, flesh and blood like us.

Cromwell's era is savage, and beneath his robes and furs he has the heart of a brute. Always carrying a knife, he is well adapted to the treacherous insanity of the Tudor court. It is a bullring, he the toreador. The council, he thinks, "should put down sand to soak up the blood". Yet while the politics of intrigue and backstabbing are pungently conveyed, what is most compelling is being caught in Cromwell's lizard mind. Cold-bloodedly reviewing his past life, and his growing army of enemies, he has no illusions about what the future might bring.

"Always you, Cromwell, with the bad news," says Henry, setting kettledrums rolling in the reader's mind. But there is a long way to go before the end. Between 1536, when The Mirror & the Light picks up the story, and its conclusion in 1540, Cromwell has much to handle. There is the new young queen, Jane Seymour, who appears unable to conceive. Mantel spends little time on her, which is a fair reflection of her significance in the Tudor tale. Yet one line about the timid young queen encapsulates the predicament of all Henry's wives, and other such marital pawns: "The bedchamber is her tilting ground, where she shows her colours, and her theatre of war is the sealed room where she gives birth."

When an infant finally arrives, Cromwell's relief is short-lived since a few days later Jane is dead. It falls to "Crumb" to find his monarch a new bride. Enter Anna of Cleves, daughter of a German aristocrat whose country is rich in the mineral alum ("perhaps...not the foundation for a love match"). She is renamed Anne, "as if the king and all his treasury has not a syllable to spare". From their first encounter, it is not a happy alliance, and worse is to follow. As with Jane, Anna is not allowed to make much impression on the story. Instead, her situation is refracted through the eyes of the court's stage manager who realises, with alarm for his own safety, that this particular act has been a dismal failure.

Much else happens in the four years across which this overly long book stretches. There are international politics, in which Scotland emerges always in a poor light, "grizzling" the adjective that sums up Henry's and his lieutenants' view of their fractious enemy in the north. Among his military men is Thomas Howard, who, along with his father, inflicted the Flodden disaster on James IV. Mantel's description of Cromwell's arch-opponent is to the point: "like a man who had chewed and digested himself". Cromwell, meanwhile, is like his thuggish father, having the appearance of "the kind of fellow who chucks drunks out of taverns". His roots are lowly, as the son of a blacksmith, but these days he is so all-mighty and sinister his name is used to frighten children into obedience.

As well as Henry's matrimonial problems there is the rising in the English north of those appalled, among other things, at the Catholic Church's persecution. The Pilgrimage of Grace is a poisonous boil, but with Cromwell's advice, it is quickly lanced. Here, and on other occasions such as the Bible translator Tyndale's martyrdom on the pyre, Mantel does not spare the reader. She is not gratuitously descriptive, but nor is she coy. All of these unspeakably cruel conflagrations draw Cromwell back to his boyhood, when he watched a heretic die at the stake. Indeed, much of what he must deal with turns his mind backwards, endlessly unspooling his Putney origins, and the ever-ready fist of his violent father. It is surely not fanciful to see in Henry VIII's vicious, ungovernable and molten personality an echo of Cromwell senior, nor to read into the Lord Privy Seal's perpetual caution and suspicion the evidence of a brutal lesson learned young.

As if all this were not enough, Cromwell can never let down his guard. When he thinks of Henry, he reflects: "Giants are lonely; they don't know any other giants. Sometimes they want a boy like Jack to amuse them, to run errands and teach them songs." But he too is lonely, desperately so since the death of his wife and daughters. Other than his son and a loyal servant, he has no-one on his side – deservedly so, you might say. Court politics is a vipers' nest, a squirming mass of competing, venomous interests amid which hitherto he had shown the sharpest fangs. Such supremacy, he is well aware, is unlikely to last forever.

Among the pleasures of this brooding, melancholy, and pensive characterisation of one of England's harshest and most influential politicians are Cromwell's quiet reflections on his own motivations. Also beguiling are descriptive passages where Mantel steps away from the plot and lifts her eyes. During a snowfall, she notices "the tracks of small birds and animals, cut into white like some code or lost alphabet". At other times, she strains too hard: "in the heat of morning the scent of lavender ripples into air like bubbles of laughter".

At almost 2000 pages, the Wolf Hall trilogy is longer even than War and Peace. Mantel's ambition and narrative skill are immensely impressive. The result is a labour of love for the reader: at best a wholly immersive experience, at worst, too dauntingly replete. Returning repeatedly to lines and images from the first two books, it has a whirlpool magnetism.

But the undermining factor in all of this is Henry VIII himself. In later life he became psychopathic, governed by delusions and paranoia, seeing murder as the easy solution to any thorny problem. This, in the end, makes a story black and white. Cromwell, however, thrives in the shadows, where all is grey. What makes Mantel's imagining of this period so fine is that she seeks out the far subtler interest that lies beneath the obvious thrilling horror of Henry's reign. In so doing, she has produced a literary Leviathan that indelibly illustrates a truth still resonant today: "It seems there is no mercy in this world, but a kind of haphazard justice: men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own."