When Henry VIII came to the throne he was young, attractive, and slim; a refreshing change from the rather austere regime of his father. But as he grew older he lost the charm of novelty and became increasingly bloated, unlovely, and difficult to deal with. The same kind of thing has happened to Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, with the last volume The Mirror and the Light turning out larger, less innovative, and quite a bit less charming than the earlier volumes.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a book you will definitely want to read, and not just because you’re locked into the trilogy and the life. Mantel faced several challenges in making this novel as good as the others.
For one thing, this part of Cromwell’s life is well known. In Wolf Hall Mantel was inventing his tantalisingly unknown early life, and took the opportunity to show him as an attractive underdog of astonishing competence, clawing his way up through an uncanny ability to master every trade he encountered, yet steadfastly loyal to his master Wolsey. In the new book he is plump, secure, and loaded with offices and honours. Nothing much can be invented because this stage of his life is part of history and without that creative freedom it’s difficult to make him so appealing. His competence seems to have deserted him, and in fact Mantel makes it worse, having him make a fool of himself over marriage proposals twice in ways that don’t even strike me as particularly plausible.
The fact that this history is well known also makes it inherently less interesting. We know what’s coming. Mantel herself seems bored in places; the Pilgrimage of Grace was a sensational rebellion, but we trudge through it dutifully with no illuminating flashes of insight or sympathy.
In what may be an attempt to address some of these problems, Mantel revisits in flashback episodes from earlier in Cromwell’s life; but this just makes the damn thing even longer. Here I think we’re up against a genuine weakness of the author; in A Place of Greater Safety, her earlier book about the French Revolution, she also, in my opinion, began to run on at uncontrolled length. In a couple of places here, she oddly drops in anachronistic phrases, and unfortunately one of them is ‘cut to the chase’, the very thing she seems unable to do.
One of the interesting things about Wolf Hall was its technical innovation. It read easily but in some ways the prose was unorthodox; notably, it only ever referred to Cromwell as ‘he’. It was quite shocking when she finally gave up and said ‘he, Cromwell’. In The Mirror and the Light, she does something different, clarifying with one or other of Cromwell’s ever-increasing roster of offices – ‘he, Master Secretary’. This enables her to highlight different aspects of his role; but it isn’t the tour de force that the earlier book pulled off.
The book has been nominated for the Booker, and if it wins will be an astonishing third in a row, an unprecedented hat-trick. I haven’t read the other contenders, so it could easily be that The Mirror and the Light deserves to win; but momentum from the earlier books is surely going to give it a head start. It seems to me we’ve got a good book, but not the great one we were hoping for.