The library is inhabited by spirits that come out of the pages at night.
Diane de Beer
The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate):
When the third in Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy landed at home (thanks to the publishers), Covid19 had already surfaced across the world, I had an arts festival to attend and I thought it would be the perfect read for my husband who was staying at home, alone, for 10 days.
On my return, the lockdown hadn’t yet been announced, the book was waiting – and lockdown happened.
Unintentionally, I had in my hands what I think might just be the perfect lockdown read. It’s not every day that you’re excited about starting an 875-page book. For one thing they’re heavy to hold in bed, but Mantel being the writer she is, the topic – an extraordinary one and this third in the trilogy – as had been proven with the first two Booker-winning books, will take you to another world completely.
One which also has plagues it must be said, but then it’s reassuring to know that the world made it through those too – and they don’t play a large role in the story while adding to the overwhelmingly precarious circumstances of everyone except those serving the king – and they have the threat of possible death hanging over their heads all the time.
“But now there are rumours of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces.” Sound familiar?
Hilary Mantel is in a league of her own when it comes to historical writing. The layers of every sentence are mind-boggling, her language pure poetry and her storytelling abilities backed by research that is painstaking.
It is difficult to explain the full magnitude of her storytelling without it sounding tough to read, too much hard work or simply too much of a drag to even tackle. And I won’t lie, it isn’t easy reading in the sense of just picking up the book and diving into the story. Dealing with Henry VIII and his constantly changing court, depending mostly on his whims, you have to keep your wits about you to know who is who.
But Mantel knows that and she reaches out a helping hand with a very strong listing at the start of the book including all the main players. To give an indication what we’re dealing with, it starts with the heading The Recently Dead with the main topic of the previous book, Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, first on the list.
If you have read the previous two, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, you will know that the trilogy while dealing with the reign of Henry VIII, centres on the machinations of Thomas Cromwell, later Lord Cromwell, Secretary to the king, Lord Privy Seal and Vicegerent in Spirituals; that is, the king’s deputy in the English church.
What his job(s) is really about is being constantly on call and responding to the king’s every whim. This is about a ruler and a time when his word and every wish was what everything was about. “Once Henry says, ‘This is my wish,’ it becomes so dear and familiar a wish that he thinks he has always had it. He names his need, and he wants it supplied.” And “He (Cromwell) thinks, I want to be able to locate the knave at a moment’s notice. The king spits at the name of Becket, but give him a year or two and he may change his mind, and make him a saint again. Sad, but those are the times.”
The complete disparity between the king and his immediate circle and the rest of the people reminds strongly of the world we live in today, so glaringly visible during Covid19 where the treatment in so many instances is dependent on good health services. Obamacare is beginning to make sense and when you see the statistics in the US of the disparity in communities worst hit by Covid19 nothing more has to be said. Similarly, the squalid circumstances of our squatter camps. Many people don’t even consider space a luxury.
More than anything though, because you have to pay attention when reading the dense writing of Mantel, it transports you into another world far removed from the one we live in because it is so far back in time (1536 – 1540). In a recent interview with Mantel when the interviewer wanted to know something about the world we find ourselves in now (this was before Covid19), her response was quick as she reminded her audience that she had been living in the 1500s for quite some time. With research, the book took 7 years to write and is described by the author as the “greatest challenge of her writing life”.
But just breathe in some of her writing:
“After supper, as a hush falls and the long midsummer day folds itself and disposes to dusk…”
When talking about the latest choice of wife for the king: “Which one will he take? They say the one has brown hair and the one blonde.
“Go for the blonde, is my advice.” …
“His tastes may have changed.” She looks at him as if he is simple. “I do not think blondes go out of style.”
That could be part of any contemporary story.
And this extraordinary thinking by Cromwell on plums: “He used to think that the plums in this country weren’t good enough, and so he has reformed them, grafting scion to rootstock. Now his houses have plums ripening from July to late October, fruits the size of a walnut or a baby’s heart, plums mottled and streaked, stippled and flecked, marbled and rayed, their skins lemon to mustard, russet to scarlet, azure to black, some smooth and some furred like little animals with lilac or white ash; round amber fruits like crimson eggs in a silver net, their flesh firm or melting, honeyed or vinous; his favoured kind the perdrigon and it black , the palest having a yellow skin dotted white, sprinkled red where the sun touches it, its perfumed flesh ripe in late August; then the perdrigon violet and its black sister, favouring east-facing walls, yielding September fruits solid in the hand, their flesh yellow-green and rich, separating easily from the stone…” and it goes on.
The richness of the description says as much about Cromwell’s need to have diversions as about his attention to detail, whether it is the king’s needs or his longing for the riches he was starved of in his rotten and abusive childhood.
And that’s what is so extraordinary about her writing. Mantel tells a story of the time as much about the people as the way they lived. One dithers constantly between caring deeply for or discarding Cromwell for his dastardly deeds. He was doing the kind of dance someone like Dr Fauchi or Governor Cuomo has to do around Donald Trump. It’s not that they want his favour, they need it to serve the nation.
For Cromwell it was about survival. While he accumulated much wealth and an enviable lifestyle at the time, his family savoured his successes after his death rather than him ever having the time. He was simply treading water and even though the reader knows the end of the story and the death of Cromwell from the beginning, it’s with huge sadness that you follow his downfall in the final chapters of a book that masterfully concludes a long sojourn with Thomas Cromwell and the king he served with everything he had.
Perhaps too well, but he never had any choice. And even the outcome was destined. If you have read the first two, this isn’t even an option. And if you haven’t, this is the perfect time to tackle all three. You won’t be sorry – almost guaranteed.
I can’t wait to see where Mantel goes next. Wherever it may be, I will follow.