Thoughts: The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel

Oh man, this one is going to be disappointing in terms of analysis and detail.

What can I say? I’ve been waiting years for it, and it came. It was what I was hoping for. I only had to haul the gigantic paperback around for a couple of days before the serendipitous COVID-19 lockdown hit Germany and I was free to read it at home, at my leisure, on the balcony in the sun, or curled up in bed, or on a lonely bench on Frankenallee (yes, for crying out loud, I was socially distant).

I thought I’d leave it a few days after the initial ending, one of those book-endings like a small bereavement (well I mean), to see if any wise and intelligent thoughts occurred to me afterwards. Nope. Just want more of it, please.

I’m an awful reader. Let’s get that out of the way now. I can be good about most things, but when it comes to anything that hits a certain kind of ‘want’ button in my mind I am the absolute worst. I wanted more lore in Lord of the Rings. I want Matthew Shardlake to live forever and also solve crimes for that long. I’m one of those fans who doesn’t know or care what’s good for her. There’s a kind of relief when a series I love ends, because at least the creator can be trusted to do the right thing, if I can’t be trusted to want it. Talking about you, Bojack Horseman.

So yes, this is turning out to be a lot more about me than Thomas Cromwell. I saw a couple of comments while I was reading about how The Mirror and the Light could have used a bit heavier editing in the middle, but I neither noticed nor cared when I was plunged into Cromwell’s reminiscences, the more labyrinthine, lighter-touch, more careful schemes he was embroiled in. As he gets older, he gets more tangled up in the things he’s done before. The more he succeeds, the more he has to lose.

He gets less circumspect as well – he loses his temper, he says things he immediately knows he shouldn’t have said. He’s getting old and complacency is pushing in at him, and he’s losing his patience. It’s just such an amazing character study, this whole trilogy, showing not just a character or a personality in intricate, contradictory detail, but a personality in flux, changing constantly through the years.

I loved the relationships between all the characters, friends and enemies at the same time, how no one is ever fully on anyone’s side or fully off it, how the best laid plans of mice and men are constantly derailed by Henry, who proves that yes, the people in charge of us have always been this mad.

I loved how Cromwell’s impressions of people and events in his past – that we were personally involved in, in the previous books – change. He comes to fool himself with his own games with the truth, he looks more fondly on people he was engaged in life-or-death court struggles with, things change. He changes. Gregory, such a terrible son compared to the sharp and wasted Anne, comes into his own. Jane Seymour turns out not to be such a sheep of a woman after all.

Ugh, just everything.  The humour, the characters, the detail, each scene a world I could have lived in. I thought I knew a decent amount about what the Tudors did but now I understand why and how and what it meant*. I understand why Anne of Cleves, why Katherine Howard.

Everything. The end. What can I say about the end? It was terrible and perfect. It made me feel part of something huge. It made me feel the best kind of small. I’m going to live half in this trilogy for a long time, I think.

*Yes of course I know that historical fiction, however meticulously researched, is not a substitute for historical non-fiction, but a complement to it.

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