Cromwell pulled the strings. Now the strings ensnare him.

Hilary Mantel follows the waning fortunes of Thomas Cromwell, fixer to Henry VIII, all the way to the Tower in the riveting “The Mirror & the Light."

Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers
“The Mirror & the Light” by Hilary Mantel, Henry Holt and Co., 784 pp.

For readers and reviewers alike, three main questions have attended the imminence of “The Mirror & the Light,” Hilary Mantel’s third and final novel about King Henry VIII’s cruel, capable lawyer Thomas Cromwell. 

The first question: Could Mantel maintain the wild readability of the previous two books, “Wolf Hall” (2009) and “Bring Up the Bodies” (2012)? The novels traced the fortunes of Henry’s first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, while charting the steady accumulation of power and influence into Cromwell’s own ruthless hands. Those earlier books came alive with an uncanny momentum.

So, too, with “The Mirror & the Light.” This is the story of Henry’s third wife (and the mother of his only legitimate male heir) Jane Seymour, but it’s also the saga of Cromwell’s downfall, as the unceasing Tudor court machinations he manipulated so well finally turn on him as he tries to arrange a fourth marriage for Henry after Jane Seymour dies. 

This new marriage will be to German princess Anne (here styled as “Anna”) of Cleves, who’s being championed by Cromwell for political reasons after the contentious naming of other possible candidates. At one point, after Cromwell has privately called Henry the “mirror and the light” of all other kings, Henry replies, “Whatever you hear, at home or abroad, I repose my faith in you.” 

In the Tudor world, such words, meant to reassure, are virtually a death sentence. To the reader avidly turning the pages, it’s amazing that Cromwell, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal and a longtime observer of the king, doesn’t see it. 

On the spur of the moment, Henry decides to don a thin disguise and go to meet his prospective bride as soon as her ship docks in 1540. Surprised and dismayed to find the king large, fat, and old, Anna briefly recoils. And even though she recovers instantly, the damage is done. “He fell back,” a witness tells Cromwell. “Any man would have been stricken. She flinched from him. He could not miss it.” 

Henry marries Anna but soon curdles on the idea and begins pressuring Cromwell to find a way out. And what is baffling in the historical record is equally baffling in Mantel’s dramatization: for the first time in his court career, Cromwell simply doesn’t find that way out. And Henry notices. “In January he said, Cromwell, you are not to blame,” we’re told. “Now you can hear him thinking: one thing, one thing I wanted him to do for me, and he would not.” 

The second question about “The Mirror & the Light” concerns Cromwell’s development as a character. He has always been a hard, do-anything, hatchet-man (first for Cardinal Wolsey and then for Henry), but the strain on credulity throughout these novels has been Mantel’s insistence that her readers believe in a Cromwell who’s not only likable but, in a way, noble. This Cromwell sits poorly alongside the grifter, the briber, and the torturer that history says Cromwell became at his zenith. 

The final book presents a Cromwell more closely aligned with history. He’s a squinting, cynical observer of human frailty for the first 600 pages of the novel, and he’s a squinting, cynical observer of his own frailty in the final 100 pages. “Manuals of advice tell us you should fear weak men more than strong men,” he thinks. “But we are all weak, in the presence of the king.” It’s certainly believable, but for this character, it sounds a bit pat.

His friends desert him, his enemies gloat, but up to a certain point Cromwell clings to hope, even though he knows better: He knows his king. “Is there an instance – he [Cromwell] cannot think of one – where, having turned his face away, Henry turns it back?” 

The king doesn’t, of course, and Mantel is exquisite in these final pages. “So I won’t see August” Cromwell reflects from the Tower of London. “The hares that flee the harvester, the cold morning dews after St Bartholomew’s Day.” It’s the same flinty Cromwell, as unsentimental about his own fate as he’s been about the fates of all the men and women he’s sent to their deaths, but it works our sympathies even so. The whole book is like that: even the most monstrous characters are given shades of touching empathy (including Henry, here given far more texture than in the earlier two books).

And the third question? It’s simple, persistent speculation: Will Hilary Mantel become the first author in history to win a Booker Prize for three consecutive novels? The longlist is announced in late July. 

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