bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Glimpses in The Mirror and the Light

Posted in British History by bonaelitterae on 20 April, 2020

‘Dead men are at work’ (p. 615). The final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy is a book of ghosts. It opens only a second after the previous instalment, Bring up the Bodies, ended, as life leaves the now truncated queen. The world, however, has changed in that twinkling of an eye. Both the main protagonists — Thomas Cromwell and his master, Henry — have aged. Henry has always been plagued by dreams: one of the bravura moments of writing in the earlier parts of this saga saw Cromwell and Cranmer stand over the king, moulding a positive construction for the nightmares that had woken him from his royal sleep. Now Cromwell, though still a man of action, is in his fifties and he broods, recalls, regrets. He finds the darkness sometimes haunted.

Leemput after Holbein Whitehall Mural

A 1667 copy of Holbein’s lost Whitehall Mural, by Remigius van Leemput (Royal Collection).

The Mirror and the Light moves backwards as it moves forwards. It fills out Cromwell’s back-story, giving more details of his childhood and fathering on him a daughter from his Antwerp years. It also cannot forget his former adversaries: Thomas More casts his shadow across these pages. There are new enemies and there are new traitors. Some friends gain new prominence: Mantel has fun giving a more prominent role to Thomas Wyatt (who was Cromwell’s political protégé), and likewise to Hans Holbein. In particular, she provides an ekphrasis of the Whitehall Mural, which is doubly suited to her purpose as it is itself now no more than a reflection in mirrors, known only via copies, the original having been destroyed by fire in 1698. Cromwell is immersed in this cultured milieu and can act his own part within it. Mantel’s invention retains something of the inventiveness seen in previous instalments and now he also becomes an author, with Mantel endowing her creation with drafts of a ‘Book called Henry’. The title teases with a hint that this was to be like Thomas Elyot’s Book named The Governor (first printed in 1531), or rather the mirror image of that work of political advice addressed to the king; what we learn of Cromwell’s opus is that is a set of reflections on how to deal with his monarch. We can only wish we could read it. This is a book about ghosts of books.

Mantel has talked of these ghosts as ‘erased texts’, which in their illegibility invite us to read more deeply. She made this comment in response to a post I wrote with reflections on her use of Machiavelli in the first two volumes. The Prince makes a guest appearance in The Mirror, in a depiction of event which accords with the historical record, the gift to Cromwell of a copy of the book by Lord Morley. Cromwell reflects that his ‘king has nothing to learn from Niccolò’s book. But it may pass an hour for him…’ [p. 646]. Machiavelli is not a defining influence on this older, less confident Cromwell. Indeed, if a contemporary work by an Italian holds resonance for this novel, it is one which is not mentioned by name but which we know the historical Cromwell owned and which may have influenced the creation of this Cromwell’s own book of reflections (as it did Elyot’s Governor). It is Castiglione’s The Courtier.

While the central character of Mantel’s trilogy is the royal servant, through whose eyes we are meant to see the politics of the later 1530s, her most remarkable construction, it seems to me, is the portrayal of the king. It is Henry VIII who is alluded to in the title of the novel, in a phrase used of him in the historical Cromwell’s diplomatic correspondence. What Mantel does so well is to depict the unknowability of a king to even those close to him — and the way in which the monarch, a changeable man by nature, becomes inscrutable to himself as he attempts to continue to be unknowable to his courtiers. Cromwell, for all his skill as an efficient bureaucrat, is no less a courtier than the landed nobility who despise him. Though he never alludes to Castiglione, he has learnt some of his lessons. With his mastery of detail and his subtle manipulation of political intrigue, he has achieved his own style of sprezzatura, but his superiority is becoming ever more effortful, his grasp ever more tenuous.

As should be already clear, The Mirror and the Light is a tour-de-force in combining historical research with human sensitivity. The first part of the trilogy, Wolf Hall, felt at times weighed down by the note-taking that sat behind the writing, but the assimilation of research to narrative was perfected in Bring up the Bodies. The knowledge displayed is yet deeper here; it is so steeped in wide reading of the available primary sources and of historical scholarship that I can imagine the publisher is already preparing to commission a ‘reader’s companion’ or ‘scholar’s edition’, chronicling the influences and their transformations. Indeed, I see another publisher already has one on its way, by Lauren Mackay. I wonder what Mantel thinks of volumes like this. After all, any attempt to endow her fluid narrative with certainty would surely be inimical to her intentions. She wants to breath life into the past for us, but is always conscious that the best anyone can do is to conjure fleeting mirages, which leaves us only being better able to embrace our own ignorance.

In the context of her meticulous preparation, there is one element I find particularly notable. She is willing at times to have her Cromwell speak of ‘the Tudors’ [e.g. p. 240]. This might seem unsurprising, given that it remains the popular term for the period 1485-1603, but, as C. S. L. Davies demonstrated, it was not a contemporary one, at least if one wanted to avoid being accused of traducing the monarchy. Naming the kings by that surname signified their low-born origins, rather than their place in the long pedigree of rightful, anointed rulers. We might object that the Whitehall Mural which Mantel so well evokes could be taken as Holbein projecting a Tudor royal identity but this is a family portrait not a dynastic one. The inscription on the central monument celebrates the virtue of father, man and son, emphasising that the commissioner, Henry, is the eighth of that name to hold the sceptre. The prime importance of legitimacy means that Henry VIII could not claim that the tradition in which he stood began just the generation before him. Beyond him stood so many spectres of so many centuries waiting to whisper in his regal ear.

‘Tudor’ may be a useful shorthand but it misguides us if it allows us in any way to imagine that it describes a world that came into being fifty years before the action of this novel. If it did that, it would lead us naturally to underestimate how radical the fissure was which we know as the Break with Rome and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The second of these is part of the backdrop to the action of The Mirror. Backdrop is merely what it is, not its perpetuum mobile, as it could plausibly have been. Mantel’s choice here helpfully reminds us how gradual the process of the destruction of the old order, and many (apart from those involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace) might have been unable to detect when the point of no-return occurred. Its relegation to an occasional reference means that it is not allowed to preoccupy the mind of Mantel’s Cromwell. He might wonder how his family can profit from the closure of certain abbeys but, strikingly, he is not burdened with worry about its long-term consequences, nor does he feel the need to justify to anyone its rationale. What was once called ‘the age of plunder’ passes here for the custom of the country.

‘Sometimes it is years before we can see who are the heroes in an affair and who are the victims’ [p. 432]. Mantel is the business of remaking reputations. If by the end of Wolf Hall, Thomas More seemed a little less like a martyr, at the final page of The Mirror, Cromwell seems no closer to being one. Her Cromwell would not have described himself as a victim or wanted to be remembered as one. He would also, I think, not considered himself a hero and I wonder whether, by the end of her writing, Mantel thought him to be that. What she has portrayed is something more interesting, more complex, more human than a hero. Yet, Mantel underplays the enormity of what her protagonist achieved. He had his time in making others victims —  not just humans, but also major buildings and traditions. They were so many that one wonders that his nights were not haunted with more ghosts.

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  1. Dana Sutton said, on 1 February, 2022 at 9:07 am

    My major criticisms of Mantel’s handling of Cromwell: a.) it is only on about p. 230 of the third volume that she gets around to the thing for which he is best remembered, his treatment of the monasteries (important not only in its own right but because the new revenue it brought in cemented his relationship with Henry). b.) she never deals with his Protestantism, probably the real motivation for his monastery policy. And both he and Anne Boleyn were crypto-Lutherans trying to nudge Henry in that direction, so why did they fail to form an alliance?

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