The Mirror and the Light
‘The scuffling and haste, the sudden vanishing of papers, the shushing, the whisk of skirts and the slammed doors; the indrawn breath, the glance, the sigh, the sideways look, and the pit-pat of slippered feet; the rapid scribble with the ink still wet; a trail of sealing wax, of scent. All spring, we scrutinised Anne the queen, her person, her practices; her guards and gates, her doors, her secret chambers. We glimpsed the privy chamber gentlemen, sleek in black velvet, invisible except where moonlight plays on a beaded cuff. We picked out, with the inner eye, the shape of someone where no one should be – a man creeping along the quays to a skiff where a patient oarsman with a bowed head is paid for silence, and nothing to tell the tale but the small wash and ripple of the Thames; the river has seen so much, with its grey blink.’
That Hilary Mantel’s ‘The Mirror and the Light’ did not win the Booker was not sad in itself – there was a worthy winner in the form of ‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart – and after winning a Booker apiece for ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ Mantel is hardly in need of literary gravitas. Nevertheless, it was disappointing in that the lack of such a prize did take attention from what is undoubtedly an astonishing achievement. As a sidenote, I did find it refreshing that Mantel was upfront in her disappointment at not making the shortlist, the obvious tendency amongst people being to denigrate or shrug off baubles which they do not win. Real judgement perhaps lies in legacy, and in this the Wolf Hall trilogy is unparalleled. I doubt that any writer in my lifetime will dare to attempt a similar project. Mantel’s Cromwell is the fictional portrayal by which any other will be judged, and she has probably gone beyond a fictional remit in influencing the debate about Henry VIII’s chief minister.
We join Cromwell in the immediate aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s execution, an execution he has engineered and which serves his purposes. Cromwell is not highborn and at this point is still to reach the zenith of his power under Henry. Anyone who has studied the Tudors at primary school will know that we still have two of Henry’s six queens to get through before Cromwell meets his maker. Mantel does not rush this endeavour – another 850-odd pages will see the reader home – but the writing and plotting is of such quality that I didn’t begrudge her a single one.
As I touched upon in my review of Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Hamnet’, there lies in the writing of historical fiction an inherent challenge – how do you keep the attention of your reader when the conclusion of the story is already known. In Thomas Cromwell, Mantel has plenty to work with. He is opaque, shadowy, his intentions and influences not always clear to the reader. The circumstances around Cromwell’s fall from grace, usually framed around the king’s failed marriage to Anne of Cleves, are sufficiently vague to allow Mantel to construct a masterclass in plotting. I particularly enjoyed Cromwell’s interrogation in the Tower of London, where the author was able to demonstrate her skill by returning to small acts throughout the book during which Cromwell had incriminated himself.
Really, though, this is all about the writing. There were many, many passages, such as the one quoted above, where the quality of prose merited an immediate re-read, and in many cases a read-aloud to my wife. To maintain such quality over a behemoth of a book is some endeavour. Nor is Mantel prescriptive in her language; strange as it may seem in a book of this length, I found her to be minimalist. As you might expect in a book about the Tudor court, a lot is left unsaid. Rumour and sideways glances abound. Mantel’s rhythm is wonderful and so evocative of the culture and barbarism of the Tudors. ‘The Mirror and the Light’ is without doubt the best book I have read so far in 2021 and I am genuinely sorry that I won’t have the experience of reading the Wolf Hall trilogy for the first time.
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Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Close to the Bone, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, Cafelit, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father. He blogs at www.matthewjrichardson.com and tweets at https://twitter.com/mjrichardso0