Thursday, April 30, 2020

Hillary Mantel, "The Mirror and the Light"

So it comes to an end, this incredible tale, the finest recreation of the past I know in any form. It has facts in plenty, and more fidelity to the truth than the average professor's history book, but it also has thoughts, feelings, and images. Of course they are guesses, but without them something is lacking that Mantel has in astonishing superabundance.

I know Mantel's Thomas Cromwell better than any other person I ever met in a book. He stands before us in his silks and velvets, risen from blacksmith's son to Earl of Essex and Lord Privy Seal, then beheaded for the crime of rivaling the king in power and pride. Mantel has made him believable, has made him a man. Over three volumes and 1500 pages she has given us all that we can know of his life, and much more. All of it seems plausible to me.

I know of no other books like these. The history is perfect, in fact probably a little too perfect; this final volume could have been shorter, but there was just so much Mantel had learned and wanted to tell us. If you wondered why certain people appear so often – Thomas Wyatt, Lord Lisle, Ambassador Chapuys – it is because they left us troves of letters, allowing us to see this world through their eyes. If you wondered why she mentioned obscure prophetesses, it s because they were written up in broadsheets or because their trial records survive, full of detail about their lives and their foretellings. These are the windows through which Mantel glimpses the Tudor world. In other places you can feel the documents that lie just behind her writing, the lists of confiscated goods, the descriptions of court masques. All was just as she describes it.

Over it all looms the awful presence of King Henry the Mad, crazed for a son, fixated on a sort of loyalty no person with a will can ever give. He executed hundreds, many, like Cromwell, for wholly imaginary crimes. Cromwell did his bidding, trumping up charges to bring down Anne Boleyn when Henry no longer wanted her, twisting the words of unhappy courtiers into active treason. When Cromwell fell in his turn he was not widely mourned, which makes him a bold choice for the central character of this vast novel. Mantel shows us his vengefulness, his greed, the cold-blooded ways he destroyed Henry's enemies. But also his loyalty to his friends, his hatred of war, the wonderful way he opened his home to a flock of young men, trained them, and launched them on their careers.

To me these books are a great gift. I treasure them, and I feel a heavy debt of gratitude to Hillary Mantel for bringing them into the world.

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