‘But if you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?’ The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel

April 26, 2020 at 7:34 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

  I have finished it: the third and final installment of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy, all 784 pages of it. (Hardback count, though I read the e-book). And what a long, strange trip it’s been….

I’m really eager to read media reviews of this book, but I want to note my own impressions, first. Going back over some of the passages I’ve highlighted, I’m struck first of all by the wealth of sardonic humor. There’s the comment that appears in the title above, issuing from the angry mind of Thomas Cromwell. He and others have just witnessed the beheading of Anne Boleyn.

Here is how the novel opens:

Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner. The morning’s circumstances are new and there are no rules to guide us. The witnesses, who have knelt for the passing of the soul, stand up and put on their hats. Under the hats, their faces are stunned.

Hungry, after that? Ugh. But if it’s meant to deliver a jolt, it succeeds.

Later, with jaunty irreverence, he remarks to his son Gregory:

‘It would be like the late queen to pin her head back on, pick up the sword and chase me to Whitehall.’

Serving the King’s Majesty takes Cromwell on one heck of a wild ride. For him, and for those who pursue a similar career path, the sensation of being near to supreme power, and possibly even exerting influence over it, is intoxicating. Me, I would rather be out in some distant field, as remote from royalty as possible, harvesting flax or some other needful quantity, or laboring in a kitchen somewhere helping to fashion one of the unique repasts, such as the one described here:

The eels come in, presented in two fashions: salted in an almond sauce, and baked with the juice of an orange. There is a spinach tart, green as the summer evening, flavoured with nutmeg and a splash of rosewater. The silver gleams; the napkins are folded into the shapes of Tudor roses; the coverpanes at each place are worked with silver garlands. ‘Bon appétit,’ he says to the ambassador. ‘I’ve had a letter.’

Falsehoods, outright lies, artful dissembling, plotting, deceiving – no bad act is off limits at this glittering court. One false move, one unguarded word, and you can find yourself imprisoned in the tower, awaiting interrogation and God knows what else. Or, as Thomas Cromwell learns to his grief, acts off loyalty and resourcefulness can be turned into something else quite other by those same interrogators. Love can curdle and become hate in a matter of hours. – even minutes.

(In Act Two Scene One of As You Like It, Duke Senior, exiled from the court, has taken refuge in the Forest of Arden. Unexpectedly, he finds this a rather pleasant  experience:

And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it.

It is much the better place, to be “exempt from public haunt.”)

Careful attention must be paid to who is who among a vast array of characters. Dame Hilary does provide a list at the front of the novel, and a very intimidating roster it is:


Anne Boleyn, Queen of England.

Her supposed lovers:

George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, her brother. (Yes – her brother!)

Henry Norris, chief of the king’s privy chamber.

Francis Weston and William Brereton, gentlemen in the king’s circle.

Mark Smeaton, musician.


Thomas Cromwell, later Lord Cromwell, Secretary to the king, Lord Privy Seal, and Vicegerent in Spirituals: that is, the king’s deputy in the English church.

Gregory, his son, only surviving child of his marriage to Elizabeth Wyks.

Mercy Prior, his mother-in-law. Rafe Sadler, his chief clerk, brought up within the family: later in the king’s household.

Helen, Rafe’s wife. Richard Cromwell, his nephew, married to Frances Murfyn.

Thomas Avery, household accountant. Thurston, chief cook.

Dick Purser, keeper of the guard dogs. Jenneke, Cromwell’s daughter. (Invented character) Christophe, a servant. (Invented character)

Mathew, a servant, formerly of Wolf Hall. (Invented character)

Bastings, the bargemaster. (Invented character)

And on it goes, through The King’s Family and Household (8), The Seymour Family (5), Politicians and Clergy (12), Courtiers and Aristocrats (17), Household of the King’s Children (3), At the Convent in Shaftsebury (2), Henry’s Dynastic Rivals (7), Diplomats (8), In Calais (4), At the Tower of London (2), Cromwell’s Friends (5). Oh – and there are two family trees – the royal family, naturellement.

Am I trying to dissuade you from tackling this formidable tale? Heaven forfend! You surely do not want to miss out on all the fun. And besides, quite a few of the characters in the above accounting are quite minor. It’s just that – well, be aware, and keep your wits about you. (No doubt, Thomas Cromwell himself would advise the same.)

At one point, Cromwell’s son Gregory observes, rather artlessly: ‘It’s no treason to say all men are mortal.’ His father has a swift rejoinder: ‘No, but it’s not your best idea either.’ Then, reflecting on recent events, he thinks to himself:

…that was Anne Boleyn’s mistake. She took Henry for a man like other men. Instead of what he is, and what all princes are: half god, half beast.

With the death of Anne Boleyn, Henry is free to seek out a new wife. He already has is eye on the demure Jane Seymour, scion of the powerful, social-climbing Seymour clan. In the fullness of time, she provides him with the son he has been so desperately wanting – a true heir. The effort, however, costs her her life.

And so, back to the drawing boards; the search for Wife Number Four begins almost immediately. And for Thomas Cromwell, the previously invincible fixer, this is where things start to go wrong.

Hilary Mantel is a deeply gifted writer. She writes marvelous dialog; moreover, she can summon up, in a single sentence, an entire world. There’s this from Wolf Hall:

He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up. It was dusk. The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing. A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate. A boatman whistled back from the river.

The novels in this trilogy are written in the present tense. I don’t always like this mode of expression in fiction, but Mantel uses it convincingly here. It conveys a sense of unrelenting urgency entirely appropriate to the story. Something she uses that I find less convincing is the pronoun ‘he’ to designate Thomas Cromwell’s thoughts and utterances. Since most of the speaking in these novels – certainly in The Mirror & the Light – is done by men, it can be unclear at times as to who is doing the speaking (or thinking).

Cromwell is reflecting here:

On his journey today from London, he felt he brought guests: Norris and George Boleyn, young Weston, Mark, and William Brereton. As he stepped out of his barge they stepped out too; they stood on the banks of the Styx, waiting to cross. They died within minutes of each other, but that does not mean they are together now. The dead wander the lanes of the next life like strangers lost in Venice. Even if they met, what would they have to talk about? When they stood before their judges they edged away from each other, as if fearing contamination. Each man had made a case against the other, hoping he might save his own life.

As soon as Henry turns against someone – often for reasons known only to himself – he pulls away from that person and lets his minions mete out their punishment. Thomas Cromwell is no angel, but as this ineluctable process played out in his life, I developed a strong animosity toward Henry. It’s never a pretty sight, watching a third party carry out a powerful person’s dirty work. It is just plain cowardly, also lazy. As Isabella says in Measure For Measure:

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
This next is a spoiler, if you don’t already know what happens: Cromwell’s path to annihilation is laid out in excruciating detail. I haven’t read anything as harrowing since the closing sentences of the story “Ideas of Heaven” by Joan Silber (in the collection by the same title).
Portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein – himself a minor character in the Wolf Hall trilogy – are hung on the same wall in my beloved Frick Collection in New York City. (El Greco’s portrait of Saint Jerome hangs between them.)

Thomas More, left, and Thomas Cromwell

Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein

The first four wives:

Katherine of Aragon

Anne Boleyn

Jane Seymour

Ann of Cleves

This scene from the television version of Wolf Hall vividly conveys Anne Boleyn’s spitfire persona. She and Henry re examining a document  brought to them by Cromwell, superbly played by Mark Rylance. (Damian Lewis is Henry; Claire Foy is Anne.)


Hilary Mantel has been very generous with appearances and interviews. Here is a short piece that I found illuminating:


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