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History Is Written by Hilary Mantel

The third novel in Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell’s life, ‘The Mirror and the Light,’ completes arguably the most significant literary achievement of the past decade

Daniel Zalkus

Henry VIII ordered the death of his most trusted councillor, Thomas Cromwell, in the summer of 1540, a year when the weather was strange. Throughout much of Europe, almost no rain had fallen since February. The continent suffered months of unseasonable heat. In France, grapes withered on the vine. In London, the Thames ran low. Seawater washed back into the drying riverbed, polluting the supply of fresh drinking water. Thousands died from dysentery and cholera. In the middle of this hot, dry season, Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Great Chamberlain, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, was accused of treason, stripped of his rank, imprisoned in the Tower of London, and, on July 28, beheaded by an ax-wielding executioner.

At the time of his death, Cromwell was about 55 years old. He had risen from low birth to become, by most accounts, the second-most-powerful man in England after King Henry. As Hilary Mantel depicts him in her astonishing trilogy of novels about his life—beginning with Wolf Hall, published in 2009, and concluding with The Mirror and the Light, published last week—he was a brilliant, practical, capacious man, supremely competent, someone who, as Mantel writes in Wolf Hall,

can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.

In Mantel’s novels, Cromwell is physically brutish and capable of pitiless determination, but also tolerant by nature, a true man of the Renaissance, hard but only when hardness is required. It was Cromwell who helped to secure Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn, precipitating England’s break with the Catholic Church. When that marriage failed to produce a male heir, it was also Cromwell who orchestrated Anne’s arrest and execution. The first two volumes of Mantel’s trilogy chart his rise to power. The third volume tracks his downfall, which revolves, in part, around Cromwell’s arranging Henry’s marriage to a new wife, Anne of Cleves, to whom the king is not sexually attracted. Cromwell’s rise and fall both depend on his manipulation of queens and on the king’s appetites.

The first thing to say about Mantel’s new novel, The Mirror and the Light, is that Mantel does not linger on the weather. For many writers, the temptation would have been irresistible. Your main character, your hero, is marching toward his downfall, his bloody death is coming over the horizon, and the historical record gives you this period of terrible, almost mystically significant drought? The obvious thing for a writer to do would be to seize hold of that coincidence and exploit it for everything it’s worth. When life hands you the pathetic fallacy, you take it. This is especially true when the work you’re concluding is arguably the most significant literary production of the past decade, a series whose first two entries have sold millions of copies, earned immense critical acclaim, and won—each of them—the Man Booker Prize. No one would have accused Mantel of overdoing it if she’d chosen to capitalize on the weather; it would be like blaming Tolstoy for tossing the comet of 1812 into War and Peace.

But the genius of Mantel’s trilogy has always lain in her omissions as much as in what she chooses to include. The paradox of these long novels is that they are lavish in detail and, at the same time, charged to the vibrating point with implication, understatement, the sense of things left out. Mantel writes feasts, but they’re feasts of elision; she writes masterpieces of negative splendor.

Consider the moment, early in Wolf Hall, when we first see Cromwell’s house. The scene is set in 1527, before Cromwell has entered into Henry’s service. At this point, he’s still only a lawyer in the service of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the powerful royal councillor whose role he will eventually fill himself. (The role becomes vacant, ominously, after Henry turns on Wolsey because Wolsey cannot get him the wife he wants.) The first time we see Cromwell’s home, Austin Friars—the most important setting in the trilogy—Cromwell has been traveling in Yorkshire for two weeks on Wolsey’s business. He now comes inside; this is the only line of physical description Mantel devotes to the house:

The paneling has been painted. He walks into the subdued green and golden glow.

Or consider the first time Cromwell meets Anne Boleyn. By the time Anne makes a full entrance, we’ve been hearing about her via London gossip, diplomatic scheming, and diplomatic intrigue for more than 150 pages; this is again the only line of description Mantel offers:

She’s so small. Her bones are so delicate, her waist so narrow.

The first time King Henry appears, we’re given a little more, though only a little:

How brightly colored the king is, like the king in a new pack of cards: how small his flat blue eye …

He has a pretty mouth, almost like a woman’s; it is too small for his face.

As The Mirror and the Light draws toward its close, with Cromwell locked in the Tower, Mantel shows us what he sees and feels in his cell: “No rain falls. The heat does not falter.” On the final morning of his life, as he prepares to walk to his execution, Mantel tells us:

The light is early and tender, the sky eggshell blue. He can feel already it will be another hot day.

But of the crisis brewing outside, the ruined crops, the poisoned water, all the elements another writer would spin up into a big curtain-closing cymbal (symbol!) crash, we learn nothing. They’re left as tacit as the gown Lady Anne was wearing, as the furniture in Thomas Cromwell’s house.

Hilary Mantel is now 67 years old. The Cromwell books are her 10th, 11th, and 12th novels. She’s also published a memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, which helped form the basis of a 2012 New Yorker essay by Larissa MacFarquhar that might be the best profile written about anyone in this century. If you want to know more about Mantel—about her hardscrabble childhood in Northern England; about her early marriage and time spent living in Botswana and Saudi Arabia; about her struggles with serious health problems, mishandled by numerous doctors, which nearly derailed her career until she finally did the research herself and figured out she had endometriosis—I recommend MacFarquhar’s profile. It’s excellent.

What I want to talk about here, though, is not so much Mantel’s life and career, or even the dramatic-historic arc of the Cromwell trilogy, as gripping as it is. What I want to talk about is something closer to technique. That is, I want to talk about Mantel’s method of representing setting and human consciousness. Specifically, I want to talk about why, if you are a writer and read her work, you might feel, at regular intervals, a sensation of awe so intense that your brain loses contact with the nerve endings in your face.

Let’s start with the sense of omission. In a set of “Rules for Writers” written for the Guardian in 2010, Mantel offered the following tip: “Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change.” (This was rule no. 7; rule no. 1, also highly useful, was “Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.”) This rule, I think, offers the best point of entry to understanding the brilliance of Mantel’s compressed later style. It means essentially two things. First, it means that description tends to be more interesting when it is situated within the psyche of a human observer. (Another of Mantel’s rules holds that description “is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God.”) Consider a passage beginning, say:

The yellow house was set back in the clearing, screened from the road by a number of tall trees. Its lower windows were barred, but the small upper window, beneath the peak of the highest gable, stood open to the breeze.

A little boring, right? It’s the sort of scene-setting you can just about tolerate in small doses, but when you’re faced with a page and a half of it, you’ll surely be tempted to skim. But if the writer—in this case, me—takes the same information and connects it to a human motive, things instantly become more interesting:

Smith studied the house from behind the cover of the trees. The lower windows were no good—barred. But the upper window—yes, the upper window was open. If he could get up there he could fit through that window, he thought.

See what I mean? Now, instead of merely being an inert object in the world, the house is connected to a whole network of possible desires, obstacles, dangers, and rewards. That is, it’s connected to a story. Literary critics call this kind of narrative—third person, but inflected by the consciousness of a perspective character—“free indirect style.” It might be helpful to think of free indirect style as a mixture of first-person writing and third-person writing. A first-person narrative says, “I looked at the painting. Christ, it was hideous.” A purely objective third-person narrative says, “She looked at the painting. She thought, ‘Christ, that’s hideous.’” A free indirect narrative, combining the two approaches, might say something like, “She looked at the painting. Christ, how could an artwork be so hideous?” The reader understands, in the third example, that the judgment about the painting belongs to the character, not to the author. The use of the character’s thoughts and perceptions to inform the narrative allows the reader to share the movements of the character’s inner world, but the third-person framing means we still see things from the outside, in the realm of external reality. There’s an ambiguity there, a push-pull between inner and outer, and this tension gives a skilled writer access to an enormous range of shadings.

The second thing “concentrate your narrative energy upon the point of change” means is that we tend not to look closely at the aspects of our surroundings that remain the same day after day. What we tend to notice are differences. You don’t really see your front hall when you come in from work, but if you walk up the steps and find the glass of your front door broken, or walk inside and find a monkey dangling from your grandfather clock, then you will observe those things very intensely indeed.

Both these points—that description works better with a human element, and people don’t tend to notice the things to which they are accustomed—take on additional urgency when a writer is describing the past. The past is hard for readers to imagine, because it doesn’t look or smell or taste like the present. But reading a lot of God’s-eye description at once is still tedious. The combination of these two facts sinks a lot of historical fiction. Either the writer overwhelms us with firelight winking on silver goblets in feasting halls redolent of mulled spices and echoing with the tinkle of lutes blah blah blah, or else the writer leaves us adrift, with nothing to picture.

Mantel’s solution to this problem is to stick fiercely to the two principles I outlined above. She shows us the 16th century by showing it to us through one person’s eyes (the narrative energy), and she shows us only what that person would notice (the point of change). So the Cromwell books faithfully adhere to Cromwell’s own perspective—he’s hardly ever even named in the narrative, being referred to only as “he” for hundreds of pages at a time; we seldom think of our own names without a reason—and they leave out enormous quantities of the detail familiar to Cromwell. They notice what his eye notices, and trust the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. And because Mantel is such a precise observer and knows her character so well, she can use this method to conjure an entire 16th-century scene out of a single detail. Her sentences bristle with a kind of sensuous absence.

A single glimpse becomes a teeming London street:

Francis Bryan is laughing so hard that his horse twitches under him, uneasy, and skitters sideways, to the danger of passersby.

A glance at the king tells you everything about the man, and everything about a whole summer of royal hunting:

Henry seems disinclined to go indoors. He stands looking about him, inhaling horse sweat, a broad, brick-red streak of sunburn across his forehead.

The cumulative effect of this is thrilling. A thousand pages pass by with the concision of a sketch; Mantel doesn’t so much show us what the 16th century was like as convince us we already know, then recruit us into helping her conjure it.

The implications of Mantel’s technical mastery don’t stop at descriptive world-building, however. Because she keeps us so tightly bound to Cromwell’s consciousness, she is able to create a kind of virtuous information loop: Cromwell’s character tells us about the outside world, but the outside world is always telling us about Cromwell’s character, because of the way he looks and the sorts of things he notices. Look again at a couple of the examples I highlighted earlier. Here’s the first time we see Austin Friars, Cromwell’s house:

The paneling has been painted. He walks into the subdued green and golden glow.

Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. Cromwell has been traveling in Yorkshire. Now, returning home, what does he see? He notices what’s different: the paneling has been painted while he was gone. We see this detail (“the subdued green and golden glow”) and fill in the rest, the candlelight, the tapestries, the dark oak. But these two sentences also give us vital information about Cromwell. He is someone who can afford to make improvements to his house, and the improvements continue even while he’s away; so he’s well off, rising in the world. What’s more, he has good taste, an aesthetic sense. He’s perceived by others as a thuggish man, a lowborn brute, but we know him as someone who perceives the beauty of a subdued glow and who wants his house to possess it.

The same process is at work the first time he meets Anne Boleyn. All Mantel tells us, remember, is that Anne is “small” and that her bones are delicate. Again: narrative energy, change. Cromwell has been hearing about Anne for months. Her relationship with Henry has threatened the Church and shaken the balance of power in Europe. From afar, she’s seemed like an irresistible power, a historic force; up close, what does Cromwell, this large man, notice? Why, she’s just a person. She’s so small!

What’s more—and here we’re entering the zone where, if you’re a writer, Mantel might send you to your fainting couch with a washcloth on your forehead—is that in addition to building a world and revealing character with an astounding economy of language, each of these initial glimpses also contains the seed of the character’s eventual downfall. Cromwell’s rise to power is charted, throughout the trilogy, by his additions and improvements to Austin Friars. When he finally loses the king’s trust, he completes a trajectory begun more than a thousand pages earlier, in that first sentence about his house. And Cromwell’s impression of Anne’s bodily fragility in their first meeting looks ahead to the moment, hundreds of pages later and in a different book, when he masterminds the drive to have her killed. Each observation is totally persuasive within the spontaneous moment the characters are living; each is also a secret map of the plot of Mantel’s series. Her sentences are fractals. You gasp to watch them unfold.

The early reviews of The Mirror and the Light have been odd. Critics keep calling it a masterpiece while seeming slightly disappointed in it; it might be the first novel in history to be damned by deafening praise. Parul Sehgal, in The New York Times, calls it “triumphant,” then allows that “certain pages proved a slog.” Daniel Mendelsohn, in The New Yorker, speculates that Mantel said everything she had to say about Thomas Cromwell in the first two volumes. That strikes me as a bizarre claim, given that the new volume quite obviously says new things about Cromwell—it tells us how the careful man fell into hubris, how the brilliant man allowed himself to be outmaneuvered, how the protégé who followed Wolsey’s path to power began to make the same mistakes as his master—but it’s true that The Mirror and the Light is the longest novel in the series, and the slowest. It’s a mazier sort of book than Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and it might need to be lived with for a longer time than a critic on a tight deadline in the middle of a frenzied PR campaign can give it. But it’s less immediately dazzling, less propulsive on a first reading.

The problem, if there’s a problem, is not that Mantel has said everything she has to say. I think the problem is that history has already killed so many of her best characters by the time the book opens. Cromwell has outlived all his strongest foils.

We’ve lost Wolsey, the plush, ingenious, eminently self-satisfied cardinal, who dies midway through Wolf Hall.

He makes a great, deep, smiling sigh, like a leopard settling in a warm spot.

We’ve lost Thomas More, the dusty scholar, enlightened zealot, and mildly smiling sadist, who dies late in the same novel.

“Thomas More here will tell you, I would have been a simple monk, but my father put me to the law. I would spend my life in church, if I had the choice. I am, as you know, indifferent to wealth. I am devoted to things of the spirit. …” He looks around the table. “So how did he become Lord Chancellor? Was it an accident?”

We’ve lost Anne Boleyn, the fierce, nervous, daring, calculating self-created queen, beheaded in the breath before The Mirror and the Light begins.

… glancing around with her restless black eyes, eating nothing, missing nothing, tugging at the pearls around her little neck.

Mantel’s technique is a form of free indirect style, but one that’s pursued with such pressurized rigor over such a long span that it begins to seem like something else, something stranger and riskier. Because it draws so much of its energy from the charged connection between Cromwell’s perceptions and his world, it works best when it gives Cromwell things to look at that match the power and complexity of his attention. It works best, that is, in the company of brilliant characters. But Tudor England had a way of murdering such characters, and by the time we reach the third volume of the series, Cromwell is mostly surrounded by underlings and lesser figures. Late in the novel, he even laments that he was brought down by mediocrities. Many of these are wonderful creations in their own right—Mantel has never written a weak character, to my knowledge—but not unforgettable, the way many of the dead characters are. (That the claims of the dead is also one of the driving themes of this book is one reason I’m reluctant to call it a disappointment.) Cromwell seems enlarged; his world seems reduced. And so the electric crackle of Mantel’s fusion of setting and consciousness seems slightly diminished.

Still. There’s so much here to marvel at. There’s the pang of hunger Mantel gives to Cromwell after Anne’s execution is finished, and the way it’s echoed, 750 pages later, by Cromwell’s thought on the day of his own death: “It occurs to him that when he’s dead, other people will be getting on with their day; it will be dinner time.” There’s ease with which Mantel weaves large historical themes—the crises of religion, commerce, war, succession—into a narrative focused on the immediate present. There are too many small details to list. The whole final sequence, which left me shaking.

Mantel never steps back from Cromwell’s perspective, even when his life is running out. We never learn about the drought in Europe, because Cromwell is locked in a cell and cannot see it. Instead, we smell the wine on the breath of the executioner as he steps up to the block. We hear the drum beating. We feel Cromwell’s heart pounding in his chest. The final lines circle back to the opening of the trilogy, as if to express what was always implicit in Mantel’s technique: The larger structure is hidden in the fleeting moment. The mind forms the world in its own shape, and vice versa. History begins in what we perceive.