The Mirror and the Light

After more than 10 years, the third and final installment of Hilary Mantel’s twice Booker-winning trilogy about Thomas Cromwell has finally been published.

The first and second books were only around three years apart (2009 and 2012), but it took Mantel eight years to finish the concluding novel, The Mirror and the Light, which continues the events from the second book, Bring up the Bodies, to the last five years of Thomas Cromwell’s life.

The Mirror and the Light begins and ends with a beheading – the first of which was Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. With Anne out of the way, Cromwell is more influential than ever, and the novel describes his successes and rise to power. All the while, unrest is felt in England, with the English Reformation, the threat of war against France and Rome, and Henry VIII’s insecurities.

The third book transitions from Henry’s second wife, Jane Seymour, to his third wife, Anne of Cleves, which may have influenced Cromwell’s downfall and disfavor. Moreover, it shows glimpses of Cromwell’s youth and life in Italy and Antwerp before returning to England and eventually working for Cardinal Wolsey. In the present, Cromwell witnesses the successes of his boys: his son Gregory (who marries Jane Seymour’s sister), his nephew Richard (who becomes a member of the king’s Privy Chamber), and his protege Rafe Sadler (who is promoted to Master Secretary along with Call Me Wriothesley). Cromwell himself is Master Secretary and Lord Privy Seal, appointed as a member of the Order of the Garter, promoted to Lord Great Chamberlain, and bestowed the title of first Earl of Essex, which was short lived.

As witty as ever and easier to read than the first two novels (maybe because I’ve gotten used to Mantel’s writing style), The Mirror and the Light is a sad ending to the trilogy and Cromwell’s illustrious career as one of England’s most (in)famous statesmen. Cromwell’s contributions to Henry VIII’s reign and the country are undoubtedly substantial, but whether these contributions were self-serving or for love of king and country is debatable. However, Mantel did a superb job in making Cromwell an interesting, likeable, and compassionate statesman, lawyer, father, husband, and human being.

***

The Mirror and the Light was my COVID-19 lockdown read, as the last book I bought before the lockdown in my country, which I read from March 24 to May 12. Recently, the Guardian published an article on Hilary Mantel saying how Thomas Cromwell would have probably locked down England longer owing to COVID-19. Indeed, it would be interesting to see how Thomas Cromwell would be received today as a government official.

***

The Mirror and the Light (2020) – Hilary Mantel

Henry Hold and Company; 754 pp (tpb)

Personal rating: 4/5

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