The Mirror and the Light

I asked for the final volume in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy for my birthday back in September, and I've been reading it off and on ever since. The Mirror and the Light is over 800 pages long -- does that mean the whole trilogy comes to about 2000 pages?? The length alone would make this series of novels about the life of Thomas Cromwell a magnificent achievement; but these books are also wonderfully written. I'm not really surprised the judges of the Booker Prize didn't feel they could award Mantel a third gong, but this book deserves it just as much as the previous two.

Reading this book, I felt deeply immersed in Cromwell's life -- we see every event through his eyes, and he sees everything. In this final volume, he is especially reflective about his hardscrabble childhood on the mean streets of Putney, and the envy and resentment of his nobly-born fellow courtiers begins to bite as they constantly remind him that he has no 'great family' to back him up, and that his common birth means he doesn't deserve the honours and riches with which Henry has rewarded him (or let's be honest, with which Cromwell has rewarded himself). 

There is a growing sense of dread as we know that Cromwell's life is inexorably moving toward its unhappy end. Cromwell has plenty of blood on his hands, and he is quite stoic in the face of his own downfall, still planning how best to save his household and protect his family until the very end. All the threads of this remarkable life draw together in this moving conclusion.

I must say reading these novels has piqued my interest about the Tudors in general, I've even started watching The Spanish Princess which deals with the life of Catherine of Aragon, who is not portrayed terribly sympathetically by Mantel -- the TV series certainly makes her a much more glamorous figure than the novels do! And it's been fun spotting other characters in this earlier story -- a dour Wolsey, not yet a cardinal, and a very dashing young Henry, but also the scheming Pole family who will make so much trouble for Thomas Cromwell in coming years. I don't think Cromwell himself will even appear. But I'll know he's there, lurking in the shadows, ten steps ahead of everyone else, even if we can't see him.

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