In her latest masterpiece, Hilary Mantel finds patterns and rational systems – the dynamic between history and literature, or politics and law, or propaganda and art – and places something malevolent, chaotic and non-rational at the heart of them, writes Danyl Mclachlan.
It begins where the last book ended. Anne Boleyn is dead. Her attendants slide around in the blood and gore surrounding the Queen’s corpse, which lies small, still and headless on the executioner’s platform. A crowd of aristocrats watches, some make jokes. Thomas Cromwell, who arranged Boleyn’s trial and execution, and is now the most powerful man in the country (with the arguable exception of the king) stands amid the nobles. He is mildly irritated by the jokes, and he contemplates a late breakfast, or maybe an early dinner. It is the morning of the May 19, 1536, and the old world, the medieval world of feudalism, aristocracy, chivalry, universal christendom, is dying. The modern world – our world – is being born.
Cromwell wonders what he will tell the king. What do you say to a man who has just killed his wife? The corpse is placed into a tiny coffin, and as he turns away Cromwell is struck by the thought: “She’s dead but she can still ruin me.” For the final four years of his life he is haunted by the ghosts of those he’s murdered: the men he framed in the Boleyn plot jostle him on the street; Sir Thomas More lurks in the shadows of his home. When he closes his eyes he sees the deadly little queen striding towards him down a hallway of glass splinters.
Once every six months or so some prominent literary critic or commentator announces “the death of the novel”, arguing that the form no longer has a place as a serious medium. Enraged novelists reply that the novel is still vital, that it holds a mirror to society, and that perhaps – hand placed gently on their chest – their own novels might be especially relevant in these troubled times. This has been going on for about 100 years, but in the 1970s the American novelist Gore Vidal argued that the novel was still vital because it is the only form that could show us how history worked. Only the novel could illuminate the psychological interior of historical figures. It was the only way to truly understand the past and therefore the present. Obviously War and Peace was the canonical example, but perhaps his own series of historical novels…
In 2009 Hilary Mantel published Wolf Hall, a historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, a shadowy and controversial figure from the court of Henry VIII. In a society defined by rigid aristocracy, Cromwell rose from provincial poverty – the son of a Putney blacksmith – to become the Earl of Essex, a very rich, very powerful and very dangerous statesman and adviser to the king. He was mostly seen as one of the villains of British history, but Mantel redefined him as a complicated hero. Her Cromwell is one of the architects of the modern world. Wolf Hall showed us Cromwell dissolving the monasteries, breaking with the pope and the church, bringing down the great feudal aristocratic families, subordinating them to his new, centralised bureaucratic nation state governed by lawyers and capitalists instead of priests and knights.
Mantel tells this story in the present tense, as if it were all unfolding for the reader in real time rather than inevitable historical fact. Her characters are psychologically modern: they think and speak like us while still holding the beliefs and values of the renaissance. And it all takes place in a world that is astonishingly rich in detail. We know what Cromwell and Henry VIII eat when they dine together, what Anne Boleyn’s cells at the Tower of London smell like. The colour of the sky over London when Sir Thomas More is executed. Funny and scary and dark, Wolf Hall was obviously a literary masterpiece and critics wondered if it was as good as War and Peace, or maybe even the greatest historical novel ever written.
It was also a huge commercial success, as was Bring up the Bodies, the sequel, a palace intrigue death match between Cromwell and Anne Boleyn. When The Mirror & the Light went on sale UK bookstores opened at midnight. Nobody dressed up in Tudor robes but it’s probably fair to call the trilogy Harry Potter for political nerds.
Each novel ends with an execution, and before we open the final book we know it closes with Cromwell’s beheading, that he’s overthrown by a counter-revolutionary conspiracy of aristocrats and conservative priests. The Mirror & the Light is a reversal of the first two books (you might even say it is a mirror image), so we never get to see this plot unfold. It happens off the page, pointed at by hints and asides that the reader sees but Cromwell does not. Instead Cromwell runs the kingdom. He negotiates marriages, confiscates monasteries, manages a spy network, balances the books, oversees the odd war, puts down a revolution, executes more of the king’s enemies and enriches himself enormously, all while keeping the king happy (although not happy enough). He writes many laws while also breaking them, dryly observing, “It is hard to be a Minister without breaking the odd law.”
Mantel has always been an astute political novelist. The first book she wrote (although not the first she published), A Place of Greater Safety, followed the leaders of the French Revolution as they became trapped by the logic of revolutionary terror. They had to kill their enemies to save their own lives and secure the revolution, but this created more enemies who also needed to die, and these executions endangered them even more. It was a trap they couldn’t get out of, and it ended with their inevitable deaths.
She sees a similar logic at work in the use of political power. Her books understand something very deep about politics: that people with power are constrained by the institutions that empower them. Henry and Cromwell seem to have ultimate power but they are inhibited by many things: the law, the culture, the nobility, the church. They spend three books tearing down everything that stands in their way: they murder their enemies, pass new laws, build a new church, a new state. They acquire tremendous power, and at the end of it all they are more constrained than ever. The king is forced to marry a bride he doesn’t want; Cromwell is forced to execute priests for beliefs identical to his own; both are beholden to capitalism and the state. The final image in the book gives us Cromwell groping his way through a dark and confined space, still searching for a way out.
Mantel brings the same chilly, analytical intelligence to her observation of gender politics. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein often told his students to “look for the use not the meaning”, and Mantel sees very clearly the way women are used and traded as commodities, named and renamed, their identities fluid – married at eight or 10, for financial or political advantage, the marriage to be consummated a few years later – and how ruthlessly pragmatic and logical it all was given that the production of male heirs was essential to political stability and great power politics. In her 2013 essay Royal Bodies, she wrote of the politics of the Tudor period that “women, their bodies, their reproductive capacities, their animal nature, are central to the story”, observing that the same was still true of Kate Middleton, the new Duchess of Cambridge, 500 years later.
Mantel isn’t an iconic feminist writer the way, say, Margaret Atwood or Elena Ferrante have become. Her books are not here to clap back at Henry VIII or tell us that the Reformation was problematic. They’re about powerful men who murder a woman, but they look for the use not the meaning. Everything is logical; everyone is constrained. The hero is one of the murderers. The victim is not very sympathetic. “Why pull the women into it?’”an ambassador asks Cromwell. He replies, “The women are already in it. It’s all about women. What else is it about?”
It’s all about women. But it’s also all about men. It’s all about history and politics and religion and psychology and law and money and art, all of them interacting in complex loops and feedback systems. In the first two books of the trilogy, Mantel’s theory of the historical novel is that history is irreducibly complex and only the novelist can capture that complexity. But in this book she seems to be saying something else.
It’s called The Mirror & the Light, and for the first half the title seems to refer to both Henry and Cromwell and the relationship between history and art: the light cannot see itself without the mirror; the mirror is in darkness without the light. But there are mirrors throughout the book. Large glass mirrors were still a new and expensive technology. Henry owned hundreds of them, probably more than anyone else in the world. He can’t actually see himself in them, though. Instead of an ageing, sick, overweight sociopath, he sees, almost literally, a blaze of light: a glorious monarch anointed by God. The only time he really sees himself is when his future wife, Anne of Cleves, glances at him for the first time – she doesn’t know he’s the king – and turns away in indifferent contempt. The pain of this accurate reflection is, as much as anything else, the cause of Cromwell’s death.
Cromwell tells Henry that he is “the only prince” and “the mirror and the light of other kings”. We know that this is not true, that Henry’s fellow princes regard him as the ruler of a poor and irrelevant island of mud and sheep and a heretic who murdered his wife. The fraudulent compliment is given as the king contemplates his freshly finished portrait, the famous Holbein masterpiece that is our defining historical image of Henry VIII. It shows him the way he wanted to see himself: glorious and virile, his massive codpiece thrusting into the centre of the painting. But the painting itself is a lie. Henry was too weak to stand during the composition; Cromwell told the painter to alter the perspective. Instead of getting at the truth, she suggests, history and art can conspire to amplify a lie. It’s another of Mantel’s logical traps.
And this, she tells us very clearly, is what her own books are doing. Mantel always admitted she was attracted to Cromwell because of the gaps in the historical record waiting to be filled with her imagination. In this book her imagination invades the historical record. She invents both characters and major events in the lives of Cromwell and the king. She reminds us that this is just a story she’s telling, just a magician’s trick. Cromwell’s consciousness is constantly slipping free of itself, travelling both forward and backwards in time, merging with that of the novelist. Books are not to be trusted. “Printers can read as if through a mirror,” she warns us. “Examine any book and you will see that some characters are upside down, some transposed.”
The book is filled with books. The printing press was still a new and disruptive technology. New books were both important and dangerous. Cromwell wants to bring an English version of the Bible to Britain. He’s writing a book about Henry. Towards the end of the novel Cromwell and Henry discuss a very famous 16th century book: The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli.
The Prince is a form of “mirror literature”, a genre popular in the 1500s. Authors wrote about virtuous Christian lives – mostly saints and martyrs – and the reader was supposed to imitate them. There was a sub-branch of the literature: “mirrors for princes”, which told stories of wise Christian rulers for monarchs or other nobles to reflect upon as they worked God’s plan in human history. But Machiavelli argued that it was impossible to be a good ruler and abide by Christian virtues. Any prince who tried would fail and be defeated or overthrown by a rival who did not. In Machiavelli history is not decided by Great Men or God, or other supernatural causes. Human nature is fixed, and flawed, and it follows consistent rational patterns that you can study and learn from. This was a very new and modern way of thinking (that we now call social science) and The Prince is still somewhat scandalous today. The values of most people living in western democracies are still primarily Christian, even though we don’t believe in their God any more, and we still struggle with this incompatibility between premodern values and modern political and economic systems.
Thomas Cromwell’s beliefs are nominally Christian, but they’re really modern He believes in the reformation: in rationalism, meritocracy, capitalism, bureaucracy, law. He scorns the medieval superstition and exploitation of the aristocrats and the church. But, Mantel asks, do his beliefs mean anything? Or does he merely find them useful when they are a means of accumulating power and destroying his enemies? Cromwell is a lawyer, like many politicians, and Mantel trained as a lawyer before she became a novelist. But in these books she always equates the law with magic and religion. In Wolf Hall:
When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them.
Modernity, she suggests, is not as modern as we think. What does it mean for a politician to believe in “the law”, if the law only ever means whatever they want it to mean? At the heart of Cromwell’s allegedly modern and rational legal system sits the king, who seems to be insane. Here is how Cromwell thinks about him:
Is a prince even human? If you add him up, does the total make a man? He is made of shards and broken fragments of the past, of prophecies and of the dreams of his ancestral line. The tides of history break inside him, their current threatens to carry him away. His blood is not his own, but ancient blood. His dreams are not his own, but the dreams of all England: the dark forest, deserted heath; the stir in the leaves, the dragon’s footprint; the hand breaking the waters of a lake.
When Hilary Mantel was a child she had a supernatural experience, which she described in her 2003 memoir, Giving up the Ghost. She lived in a house that was regarded as haunted, and one day she walked into the garden and saw something she still struggles to describe, other than that it was a rift in the fabric of reality revealing something utterly evil, something she wasn’t supposed to see. She still seems to believe in the fundamental truth of that vision, which lies at the heart of her project as a novelist. Mantel finds patterns and rational systems – the dynamic between history and literature, or politics and law, or propaganda and art – and places something malevolent, chaotic and non-rational, something ultimately non-human, at the heart of them.
The purpose of The Mirror & the Light seems to be that cliched excuse for the literary novel, that it is a mirror to society. But it is a mirror to a society that, like the king in Mantel’s books, is so self-obsessed it cannot actually see itself – especially in our literature and art, which simply shows us all whatever we want to see. We can only glance at ourselves accidentally. Our political and economic systems seem horrible, inimical to our values, but they enrich us so much we cannot change them: we’re too constrained by what empowers us. And our world – the world Thomas Cromwell helped give birth to – seems to be dying, replaced by institutions and systems even more alien and incomprehensible than the bureaucracy and capitalism of the modern era. It is a new world we can still only glimpse: algorithmic, technological, ruthlessly rational. Floodlit with light, but with a dark heart of unreason beating at the centre of it all.
The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate, $50) is available from Unity Books.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.