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After an eight-year wait, the third and final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who became right-hand man to Henry VIII, is here. Advance orders have exceeded even those for Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. Waterstones Piccadilly will be holding a special eve-of-publication signing on 4th March, an event that brings back memories of ecstatic eleven-year-olds queuing at midnight for the latest Harry Potter. So strictly has the publisher’s embargo been enforced that reviewers like me have feared that a single loose word, whether of praise or damnation, could see us taken to the Tower for one of Cromwell’s special chats which invariably conclude with your head and body in different postal districts.
An epic work of historical fiction, the series has already sold over five millon copies and made history of its own. The previous two volumes, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, both won the Booker Prize (in 2009 and 2012). Mantel is the first woman and the first British author to win the prize twice. Can The Mirror & The Light make it a hatrick? No pressure, Hilary!
The book begins where its predecessor ended, with the execution of Anne Boleyn. “Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away”. It’s a terrific opening, superbly re-imagined by Mantel. For Cromwell, this is just another day at the office. While Anne’s ladies “slide in the gore”, the remorseless brain of the Secretary to the King has already moved on to his master’s marriage to Jane Seymour. “His chief duty is to get the king new wives and dispose of the old,” reflects Cromwell with a pitch-black humour which crackles through these pages and makes our hero such good company. Mantel has fun with the labourers who are struggling to destroy all “the HA-HAs”, the initials of Henry and his now-headless queen fondly intertwined. A true Shakespearean, her generous imagination takes in the perspective of high and low.
Cromwell combines both, which is why his story is so compelling. That battered little boy from Putney whom we first met in Wolf Hall has made a vertiginous ascent to become the pitbull enforcer of the Reformation, “the second man in England”. When an aide says that he must have needed ladders to get there, Cromwell, in a rare incautious moment, quips that he has “wings”. The reader knows, of course, that like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, his downfall is coming.
In this jam-packed, 912-page volume, Cromwell is fifty years old, growing ever wearier but still with the longest To-Do list in Christendom. It would read something like this: check the King is having sex so he can make a son and stop disposing of his wives; persuade stubborn Lady Mary, who refuses to renounce Catholicism, to accept her father as head of the Church; dissolve the monasteries and distribute the spoils among the great families of England without upsetting anyone (yeah, right!); put down a rebellion in the North, manoeuvre to try and stop France and the Emperor combining forces, watch own back against those who hate you (who doesn’t?); above all, keep the ailing king happy.
It’s a tall order and Cromwell gives away his mounting unease in fierce, pep-talk soliloquies: “You must crunch up the enemy, flesh, bones and all. You cannot afford to fail, you must bring Henry good news, you must dredge it up from somewhere… Do not falter, Master Secretary. Have no qualms, my Lord Privy Seal; Baron Cromwell, do not fail. You must not soften now.”
As before, Mantel immerses us with extraordinary skill in the teeming Tudor world that has preoccupied her for over a decade. Passages of heartstopping lyrical beauty vie with tortured screams from the Tower. But that list above of Cromwell’s own titles indicates the book’s main problems. Who are all these people? The Cast of Characters has a staggering 102 names including Jenneke, a daughter to Cromwell who is invented by the author only to disappear again. Did she not have enough real people to deal with? With very little scene-setting and chapters heavily reliant on dialogue, halfway down a page you can suddenly find you have no idea who’s speaking so you have to go back to the top and start again. No wonder so many people prefer to listen to the audiobooks.
In a recent interview, Mantel said that, since starting the Wolf Hall series, one of the big changes has been the digitisation of material, which means she can access almost everything online, resulting in “an infinite choice of material. So what do you select?”
I suspect she found that selection almost impossible, which would account for the rumours of writer’s block. Her prodigious learning, worn with such incredible lightness in the earlier books, sometimes clogs the narrative here. On page 351, there is a digression on calcio - “It is a game of many players, more a melee than a sport” – which reads like a Wikipedia entry. It’s clearly research which Mantel could not bear to cut.
Somebody should have done it for her, but one hazard of a bestselling series is that editors may be less willing (or permitted even) to interfere with their golden goose and prize-winning authors less inclined to heed advice. JK Rowling’s Potter books got bigger and baggier, but not better.
If The Mirror & The Light is the least perfect volume in the Wolf Hall trilogy, that still makes it better than almost anything else of its kind. Hilary Mantel has written an epic of English history that does what the Aeneid did for the Romans and War and Peace for the Russians. We are lucky to have it. As Cromwell approaches his end, cast off by an ungrateful master, Mantel pulls together the strands of his life into a sublime tapestry embroidered with the initials HT-HT. Forget the six queens, Henry and Cromwell’s was the marriage that mattered.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel is published by Fourth Estate at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop