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Review: Mantel's trilogy finale gives us the end of Cromwell's action-packed life

Mirror and Light

"The Mirror and the Light" by Hilary Mantel. Henry Holt/provided

THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT. By Hilary Mantel. Henry Holt. 757 pages. $30.

Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels (“Wolf Hall,” “Bring Up the Bodies” and now “The Mirror and the Light”) take us to a twilight state where all outcomes are both known and pending. History, as Mantel’s hero Thomas Cromwell thinks in “Bring Up the Bodies,” is “latent in the soil, what’s breeding; it’s the days to come, the wars unfought, the injuries and deaths that like seeds the soil of England is keeping warm.”

We know what’s sprouting, but Mantel’s trilogy lets us imagine that it might all have been different. Did Anne Boleyn’s neck have to meet the sword of an executioner brought from Calais to do her in? Did Thomas Cromwell have to cross the Styx himself four years later? At the end of “Wolf Hall,” Cromwell thinks, “Man is wolf to man.” With “The Mirror and the Light,” Mantel proves him right, at least in the circles of Cromwell and Henry VIII.

Thomas Cromwell enters the Tudor Trilogy as a street rat, taking a beating from his alcoholic father. Our last image of him, as the trilogy closes, eerily evokes the first. Cromwell, in his last minutes, steps up to the scaffold on Tower Hill and sees the shadow of his father, urging him to get up from the bloody cobbles. Get up he did. Cromwell’s first maneuver in “Wolf Hall” is to leave these early scenes and seek “other places, and better,” a move that leads him to some footloose years on the Continent, to fighting others’ battles, and ultimately to the court of Henry VIII.

History remembers Thomas Cromwell as a living version of the famous Hans Holbein portrait of him, now at the Frick Museum. When Cromwell saw the portrait, the word “murderer” came to his mind. Thickset, beady-eyed, turned away from the painter’s gaze, he might be what history records: a fixer, a made man, a sometime thug, a servant of power. Hilary Mantel shows him to be all these things, but she sees more.

Cromwell lives in a full-blown, bloody, action-packed age. He is gutsy and brave; he rises to every occasion; he accepts risk. Mantel’s Cromwell belongs at the center of power because no one else can do what he does (an argument he makes in the Tower when he’s desperate to save his own life).

Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife and the only one to give him a male heir, will say of Cromwell, “The king never does an unpleasant thing. Lord Cromwell does it for him.” He is a reader of the king’s mind and a servant of his fantasy, most notably, in the making and unmaking of brides.

As “The Mirror and the Light” also reminds us, all of Cromwell’s standing and stature come from the king. In the first pages of the novel, when a pompous character, Charles Brandon, mentions Cromwell’s low origins, he answers, “I stand just where the king has put me.” The arc of Mantel’s Tudor trilogy moves from placement to displacement, a man’s making and unmaking at the king’s will.

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Of course, the king’s romantic and dynastic ambitions fuel Cromwell’s rise and speed his fall. The taut, propulsive “Bring Up the Bodies” centers on one task: establishing Anne Boleyn’s infidelity and punishing her alleged lovers. In “The Mirror and the Light,” Cromwell overreaches and stumbles while scheming to fill the wife vacancy when Jane Seymour dies. Anne of Cleves, his choice, is a disaster. The marriage is never consummated, and Cromwell loses his head the next year.

“The Mirror and the Light” is majestic in its scope and sympathy, especially in its last 60 heartbreaking pages. Cromwell’s enemies come for him, take him to a room waiting at the Tower. There’s some confusion about the crime. Is it treason or heresy? The charges begin to mount: He’s raising a pauper army, for instance. Cromwell replies, “Any chancer has a chance with me.” We are in a world where good deeds are construed as power plays. When he’s accused of feeding the poor at his gates, Cromwell can only counter, “It is what great men do.”

Cromwell’s understanding of himself is acute and poignant. He admits, “I have never limited my desires, just as I have never slacked my labors, so I have never said, ‘Enough, I am now rewarded.’” In the end, he must admit limits: of power, of effort, of charity. He has lost control of his own narrative: “They are rewriting my life.”

The story his enemies spread is one of outward obedience and inner dissent. Yet Cromwell in the end tells himself another story: “I have had my soul flattened and pressed till it’s not the thickness of paper. Henry has ground and ground me in the mill of his desires, and now I am fined down to dust I am not more use to him, I am powder in the wind. Princes hate those to whom they have incurred debts.”

His enemies manufacture treason out of scraps: “A syllable will do it.” He writes the King, begging for mercy. No answer. Within nine days, his enemies have the evidence to bring a bill of attainder into Parliament. Cromwell’s choices narrow down: Will he die by fire (heresy) or by the axe (treason).

In the days before his death, Mantel’s Cromwell is more and more pulled into the past. But he is still alert to the present (“I did not know that, when you are dying, no one will look at you”) and to the future he will miss (“So I won’t see August. ... The hares that flee the harvester, the cold morning dews after St. Bartholomew’s Day. Or the leaf fall, the dark blue nights”).

On his last day, Cromwell wakes to a tender, egg-shell blue sky. It will be a hot day. He walks from the Tower to Tower Hill, where a public scaffold awaits. Mantel arranges heart-thudding, you-are-there details. The crowd is roaring. Cromwell’s heart trips and races when he reaches the scaffold. He climbs up. He knows that at this moment, the king is getting married, for the fifth time.

He comes face to face with the executioner: “This is what life does for you in the end; it arranges a fight you can’t win.” He smells drink on the axe-man’s breath. His father is there, telling his bloody boy to get up from the cobbles. Simultaneously, he feels and narrates his own last moments: a stinging, a ripping, a throb, the taste of death. Mantel’s great trilogy is over.

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.

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