Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2020

The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel

Will The Mirror and the Light win a third Booker Prize for Hilary Mantel?  It is widely anticipated, and IMO rightly so, because her writing is IMO without peer.

I saw a rather churlish review at Goodreads: basically carping about the place of historical fiction in the zeitgeist—and cranky about a novel about Britain’s royal past in particular.  That might have been a criticism I agreed with, that there are so many important contemporary issues for novelists to wrestle with, except that The Mirror and the Light is sublime.  And it is a breathtaking study of the use and abuse of power, as relevant today as it was when Machiavelli wrote the playbook for Cromwell.

What is quite astonishing, is how brilliantly Mantel creates narrative tension when we all already know how Cromwell meets his end.  Her present-tense narrative gives the reader Cromwell’s perception of events unfolding.  Locked up in the Tower of London— mere days from his demise—he clings to hope that Henry will be merciful, as he knows Anne Boleyn hoped, right up to the last moment on the scaffold when she looked around still expecting a reprieve.  The reader feels that unreasonable hope too: perhaps Mantel will rewrite history, or perhaps she will end the book before he dies?

The Mirror and the Light begins where Bring Up the Bodies left off in May 1536.  Anne Boleyn has been executed for treason, but the schemers live on.  The Tudors have not been on the throne long enough to feel secure, and Henry has no heir.  Mary, only daughter of Catherine of Aragon has been stripped of her title as Princess since the annulment of her mother’s marriage, and so has Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth.  They are away from court, and Henry intends for them to be irrelevant.  (Ha!)

But whatever the common folk thought about that, and the Reformation, and Henry’s predilection for quelling dissent with the axe (or worse), everyone (except Henry’s rivals from the House of York) hoped that the prompt marriage to Jane Seymour would bring forth a son.

The elusive heir matters because the domestic realm yearns for stability, and stability is essential in order to hold off threats from France, Rome and Scotland.  When the country rises against Henry, besieged by papists who support Mary’s claim to the throne, there is real fear that without an heir, his only legacy will be a failing peace.

For most of the novel, Cromwell is master of his own destiny.  He’s a commoner, a blacksmith’s son, so his rise to becoming Henry’s indispensable right-hand man is breathtaking.  Plenty of people resent that of course, but he seems untouchable.  The reader is inside the mind of this most duplicitous man, always aware of his wily plans and his ability to read the mercurial sovereign.  We see that through his network of spies he knows everything that happens in the kingdom and beyond, and that he does not share what he knows.  Knowledge, for Mantel’s Cromwell, is not just power, it is also protection.

It is not written that great men shall be happy men.  It is nowhere recorded that the rewards of public office include a quiet mind.  (p.709)

And yet it’s still disconcerting when we see the first signs that the wind is shifting…

‘We have people in France we retain,’ the king says.  ‘But they are not loyal, they will turn for a halfpenny.  We have few friends in either court. ‘ He sucks his lip. ‘Especially you, you have few friends, Cromwell.’

‘If I have incurred their malice, I count it well done.  As it is for your Majesty’s sake.’

‘But are you sure about that? ‘ Henry sounds curious.  ‘I think it is because of what you are.  They don’t know how to deal with you.’

‘Likely not, Majesty,’ he says, ‘you must realise, they want me displaced, so that you might be the worse advised.  That is why they try to poison your mind against me.  Any fantastical story will serve.’

‘So you would recommend, if I hear you have exceeded your office, or that you have slacked my instructions or reversed them, I should ignore the bruit?’

‘You should speak to me before you believe anything.’

‘I will,’ Henry says.  (p.715)

(If only he had.)

It’s distracting when Henry’s suggestion that Cromwell might yet have a child because common men have vigour provokes Cromwell to think that his king is out of touch. The king does not know they wear out.  At forty a labourer is broken and gnarled.  His wife is worn to the bone at thirty-five.  I nearly missed the implication: that Henry is beginning to believe the rumours that Cromwell might marry, and close to the throne at that.

But then there is a growing accumulation of other signs that the king has changed.  He accuses Cromwell of misjudgement, he blames him, and he says, almost casually ‘No one could keep secrets from me.  It is no use to try.’ And in turn, Cromwell changes too, with distasteful ramifications:

In the next days he finds his benevolence is tested and his patience is running short.  When a spy is taken and proves resistant, he does not go along to the Tower to bribe or cajole or trick him; he values speed.  Rack him, he says: and appoints three men to take down the result.  Come to me first thing in the morning, he says, and tell me of your success. (p.771)

It is a reminder at this crucial juncture in the novel that whatever sympathies one has for Cromwell and his fate, he was a product of a brutal age.

The skill with which this story is constructed is sheer genius.  And Mantel is so deft with metaphor.  I love this one:

In Windsor, young men pass the duke’s letters around, smirking: they are all Lord Cromwell’s servants, his discepoli, flocked after him from London.  They see out the day with him, eating and drinking and talking of God and man until the candles burn down; and they see it in with him, keen as little dogs that scratch your door at first light. (p.333)

And this one, emblematic of Mantel’s attention to detail, even to the meals they eat:

It is an aromatic custard in a white dish.  He saw the gooseberries earlier, tiny bubbles of green glass, sour as a friar on fast day.  For this dish you need fresh hens’ eggs and a pitcher of cream; you need to be a prince of the church to afford the sugar.  (p.359)

Do you need to read Books 1 & 2 of the trilogy?  I was enthralled by Wolf Hall, and equally so by Bring Up the Bodies.You possibly don’t need to, but why deny yourself the pleasure?

Author: Hilary Mantel
Title: The Mirror and the Light
Cover design by Julian Humphries
Publisher: Fourth Estate, (Harper Collins), 2020
ISBN: 9780007480999, hbk., 882 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings



  1. Glad you enjoyed it. I’m about 10% in and must admit I’m struggling, even though I enjoyed the first two. I think it’s because it feels like it’s just following Cromwell through his days, his thoughts, his memories, rather than having a strong narrative arc as Bodies had.

    I’ve read that the last 100 pages are brilliant, don’t know if I can hang in there that long!


    • Hi Kate, lovely to ‘meet’ you!
      Oh I hope you do hang in there…
      TBH I feel as if I’d like to read it all over again, to see if I missed little cues about where the ground was shifting under his feet.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent post! I really agree about the skill Mantel shows in making the novel suspenseful even though we already know how it ends. The shift from his being, as you say, master of his own destiny to being yet another victim of the capriciousness of the world and the king is somehow still shocking.


    • LOL it makes one think of the current White House!


      • To my dismay, I thought about Txxxp quite often reading about Henry in this installment. The need for constant flattery, the preference for loyalty over principle, the inflated sense of his own greatness … I found myself thinking that at least for a while Henry was actually handsome and gifted. :-)


        • And Cromwell, Mantel’s Cromwell that is, buys into the concept of the divine right of kings, that they are different and must be forgiven their faults (and pandered to) because of the onerous obligations that they have.
          From where we are in Australia, it is hard to see how White House staff could operate any other way. It seems to me that the dissonance if there were no such belief in exceptionalism would break the mental health of anyone trying to weave their way through it, especially at the moment when every day we hear of so many preventable deaths from COVID_19..


  3. Im a long, long way from finishing this book because I am reading it so slowly in order to savour every moment. I’ve seen some comments that she loads the narrative with too much detail but I disagree entirely with that assessment. Of course she has to provide background and context but I never felt at any time that there was irrelevant information. Its the intimate details that help to make this such a rivetting read…..


    • Yes, I think so too. There is something very special about being lost in a world the way that Mantel creates it. Her writing is so pitch perfect, that sometimes I would just stop where I was and reread a page or three, for the sheer pleasure of engaging with the prose.


  4. I loved Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies and you are making me want to read this immediately. The size is a little daunting because I am not reading any more during lockdown than I was before. However Mantel’s writing is so good as is her sense of history that you might have just given me the nudge I need.


    • Ali, I suspect that you will find as I did, that you will become utterly absorbed almost from the beginning, and you will only remember the lockdown when there are references to the plague, and the king avoiding people and places because of the risk.


  5. Excellent review – and yes a sublime book, I loved it – the moment when those around him keep their hats on when his blows off and you know the end it coming! I hope she gets a Booker Hattrick.


    • Yes, and that moment when you realise why she called that chapter Magnificence. Sheer genius.


  6. I am planning on reading this trilogy soon. As you know, I favour historical fiction and I’m sure I will appreciate these. I even bought my copy of Wolf Hall two days ago in anticipation.


    • I will be interested to see whether you read them with a gap in between, as previous readers had to while we waited for her to write the next one, or will you binge on the entire series!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks Lisa. A fine and thoughtful review, as always. Looking forward to reading this. Hilary Mantel is a living master-class for writers of historical fiction.


    • Thanks, Jan! Sorry for the late ‘approval’ of your comment, you mistyped your surname so WordPress thought you were new here. I’ve edited it now so that we all know who you are, the wonderful author of The Sweet Hills of Florence!


  8. I enjoyed your review, Lisa, as it’s doubtful I’ll ever read the book. I’ve tried to read Wolf Hall twice, once when it first came out and second just a few months ago when I thought it might be nice to read it and Bring up the Bodies in preparation for the third instalment. I don’t know what it is about the book but it just doesn’t work for me and yet I’ve read lots of her earlier work and liked it a lot 🤷🏻‍♀️


    • Ah well, maybe it’s just not the right book for you. Never mind, just think how many more books you can read in the time it takes to read these chunksters!


  9. I’ve listened to the other two, but they were just stories as far as I was concerned, a little better written than Philipa Gregory but otherwise just the same. I think Mantel is brave to attempt this one in first person. It’s hard to know your own motivations let alone someone’s half a millennia ago.


    • That’s true, but nobody expects historical fiction to be history. If you want to read Cromwell’s history, there’s heaps of books for that. When all’s said and done, it’s a novel, an entertainment, and for me there is great pleasure in reading such an absorbing story.


  10. It is a brilliant trilogy: I love it. A lesser author could not have written this, this first person story in a way that had me right there. Yes, I know the history and it was awkward sometimes, sitting at Cromwell’s shoulder, wanting to give him advice. Because I did want to advise him, Ms Mantel’s novel brought him to life for me.


    • OH, yes, I wanted to whisper in his ear too! And to give him a stuff talking to, about the way he used people and brutally too, when it suited him. But this was one of the aspects of the book that made it real and quixotically so: at a time when people didn’t live very long anyway, their lives were often cut short for political expediency, apparently without a qualm…
      The only time I remember this happening in my lifetime was when Henry Bolte hanged Robert Ryan for political expediency. Apparently without a qualm.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. The main thing keeping from reading The Mirror and the Light is 754 pages. A novel must really be exceptional before I will read that many pages.


    • And especially when you know what happens anyway. I had the same misgivings when it arrived. (I ordered it before I knew how long it was). But any doubts were dispelled within a few pages, the writing is such a joy to read, especially when what I had just previously read was so ordinary.


  12. Thanks for this terrific review Lisa. Like many of your commenters, I’m reading this at present – just past the halfway mark. I hesitated to read your review for fear of spoilers, which just goes to show how right you are that HM manages to maintain suspense even though we all know how it ends. I do wonder what the book would have been like if there was no Trump to demonstrate that dangerously erratic men in authority aren’t things of the past.


    • Hmm, yes, and then there’s that other bloke in the UK, who makes our bloke almost look normal.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I bought this a while ago, but don’t seem to have had the concentration the book deserves, so I’m keeping it for when I’m ready to read it – but I loved, loved, loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and hope from your review the last of the trilogy won’t disappoint. I just seem to need to get into the right “space” to get started! Must be something about the times as I notice a number of book bloggers mention they are having trouble concentrating lately.


    • Yes, I’ve noticed that too. That’s not my problem, it’s that I’m making do with rudimentary magnification glasses until I get my new prescription ones after my surgery, and because they magnify for the eye that doesn’t need it, as well as the one that does, they give me headaches. So I’m limited to short bursts of reading, I reckon I did well to finish this one in eight days:)


  14. Well, I really must read Mantel, mustn’t I? Though I’m more likely to go for the French Rev than for Henry! :D


    • I must admit I was sorely tempted to start A Place of Greater Safety straight away. But then, there’s Daphne Du Maurier Week, so I’ve started The Glass Blowers instead…

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Her use of language is remarkable, the structure of her prose. It’s not easy to build the kind of pacing she manages to create, word choice and arrangement and the details she chooses to include…all those nuts and bolts contribute to making the process of reading these volumes a rewarding one (and not-so-rewarding when you’re not in a “breathe it all in” kind of reading mood). I’ve got the second and third in this trilogy to read, myself, and I’m looking forward to them, even though, as you and others here have said, of course we know how the story ends. The prevalence of the third volume brings to my mind the scene in the first, where one character’s wife dies from the plague, having contracted it during the day and dying later that same day (not naming names, as it might serve as a spoiler for some).


    • But yes, it shows you how a dreadful disease was a constant presence in their lives, and the *only* strategy they had was quarantine so they just had to get used to it being a constant risk, the way we have had to accept diseases like Alzheimer’s (though of course that’s not infectious or contagious). Maybe COVID_19 will be the same, maybe our brilliant scientists will create a vaccine, or discover a cure or a successful treatment.


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