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4 March 2020

Hilary Mantel’s complex, conflicted Thomas Cromwell

Much has been made of the idiosyncrasy of Mantel’s treatment of Cromwell. But as her new novel demonstrates, she has never simply given him a moral free pass.

By Rowan Williams

“So now get up”: these words open the first volume of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, and they are almost the last of this huge and overwhelming third book. They are the words that Cromwell hears as a teenager, beaten within an inch of his life by his drunken and abusive father, and they echo as he dies under the executioner’s axe at the story’s end. It is as though the whole of this long narrative is somehow shaped by a single trauma. Walter Cromwell’s brutal mockery of his son is heard in the background of many episodes; his jeering “Get up… stand on your feet” becomes a sort of parody of prophetic calling for Thomas. It  is what he does throughout his life, and above all in these heady years as Henry VIII’s undisputed chief minister (the years chronicled in this book follow the execution of Anne Boleyn): he gets up,  ignores the wounds – given and inflicted – and walks on.

That is, until the last act of the drama, of course, when there is no getting up, only the crawl towards death: “He feels for an opening… tracking the light along the wall.” That phrase, “tracking the light”, folds in another set of echoes, the ones that give this novel its title. The language of mirror and light recurs throughout the narrative. Most explicitly, it provides the vehicle for Cromwell’s praise of Henry, “The mirror and the light of  other kings.” More subtly, it haunts apparently disconnected passages. These include Katherine of Aragon’s crusading Spanish mother as “mirror of fate to the infidels”; water in a moat mirroring the weather; a family portrait holding up a mirror to the histories and relationships of the group; the image of his own life held up to Cromwell under examination for treason – an experience he recognises as one he has inflicted on others. And most poignantly, the sense of being no more than a mirror to the light of the king: “If the light moves he is gone.”

Mantel’s exploration of Cromwell pivots on the irony of this realisation: Cromwell – watchful, controlled, apparently omnicompetent – is dancing with two partners. There is the annihilating violence of his father and the monumental but also fragile and arbitrary promise of a light that will fill the empty space in the mirror he holds up. The only way of “getting up”, standing against his father’s brutality, is finding a light he can faithfully reflect.

The earlier volumes – Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) – made Mantel the first writer to win the Booker Prize twice with consecutive novels. In those books, Cromwell first follows the light of Cardinal Wolsey and then that of the king, to whom he mortgages his destiny and franchises his convictions: “I believe what he believes.” In this novel, we follow Cromwell from his greatest moment of success – the downfall of Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn – through the ever-more complicated pressures and counter-pressures of the years immediately following. Then, finally, we witness the desperate last months in which Cromwell loses the king’s trust over the disastrous fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves, which seals his fate. He is left, like the cardinal, naked to his enemies. His heroic attempt to contain and make sense of the “light” that is the king’s raw power and presence ends in another murderous rejection.

The suggestion that Mantel’s Cromwell is driven by hunger for a non-murderous father may sound too glibly psychoanalytical, but the narrative seems to steer us in that direction at many points. One of the most emotionally charged episodes, about a third of the way through the novel, occurs when Cromwell visits Wolsey’s illegitimate daughter, Dorothea, a discontented nun in a wealthy and dull convent.  By her, he is told that “He [Wolsey] understood you betrayed him.” Cromwell is unspeakably shocked and in some elusive sense diminished by this accusation. The ghost of Wolsey, who has thus far shadowed Cromwell with imagined benign advice and approval, is seen no more until near the end, when he drifts into his imagination, but as a pathetically reduced and confused presence.

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We are to understand that Dorothea’s words deprive Cromwell of the most important father substitute of his adulthood. Perhaps we are also to assume that this “bereavement” drives him closer to the far more dangerous blaze of the king’s chaotic ego, depending more and more, controlling less and less. Before he is locked in the Tower of London, he is already conscious at some level that he has imprisoned himself in a destructive vortex; all the more tragic in that he knows so well how it works.

Much has been made of the idiosyncrasy of Mantel’s treatment of Cromwell in the earlier novels, her brilliantly contrary interpretation of a man often regarded as a conscienceless instrument of tyranny. But the truth is that Mantel has never simply given Cromwell a moral free pass. Bring Up the Bodies glosses over neither the shocking manufacture of guilt in the trial of Anne Boleyn, nor the elements of personal revenge in Cromwell’s extermination of Wolsey’s old enemies. Never is he presented as an agnostic modern driven  by nothing more than political time- serving: his indignation at religious abuse is genuine enough.

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But Cromwell can also say – in the wake of the burning of John Lambert, a reforming cleric whose views are almost identical to his own – “I believe, but I do not believe enough.” The tragic element in the story is partly to do with an imaginative gap (which he is mostly shrewd enough to recognise) that will never let him quite understand what drives anyone to risk death for their convictions. He always believes that there is something he can offer them that will outbid the lure of martyrdom’s drama.

This makes him deeply sympathetic to a modern secular readership. But it also makes him an uncomfortable hero and leaves us wondering whether his confidence that martyrdom is always egotistical theatre locks us in a smaller world than we might otherwise inhabit.

Mantel and her Cromwell struggle to do justice to Thomas More’s resistance to Henry – not least since More is represented here as so profoundly unappealing a figure (although he has been dead for a year or so before this book opens, his shadow falls heavily on many pages). But the real More, whose fate at his trial was determined by what was almost certainly perjured evidence from Cromwell’s ally Richard Riche, cannot so easily be reduced to a man in search of dramatic public heroism – any more than can the Catholic order of Carthusian monks whose execution is mentioned with just a touch of embarrassment in this book.

Neither Cromwell’s pragmatism nor what Mantel presents as a basic fair-mindedness extend to the impulse to take a stand on something more than self or to hold the mirror up to something other than naked power. This would hardly be tragic were the central figure not in so many respects so conspicuously humane.

The narrative is full of compelling sketches of many other characters – such as the disorienting and slightly sinister passivity of Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour; the tense and prematurely ageing Princess Mary, the child of Henry and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, who clutches a tightly packed load of internal bruising. There is also Cromwell’s son Gregory, who is relaxed and good-natured but capable of some unwelcome honesty with his father. Mantel’s prose is steadily and quietly luminous, occasionally delivering unforgettable surprises: “the air as damp as if the afternoon had been rubbed with snails”. The book’s length is formidable, nearly as long as the two previous volumes put together. Even a very sympathetic reader may wonder whether some passages could have been lost without damage – the episode in which what may or may not be Thomas Becket’s relics are dug up in Canterbury, for example; and I was not sure quite what work was being done by the introduction of Cromwell’s (fictional) Flemish daughter from a youthful liaison.

Overall, however, readers of the earlier books will not be disappointed. This is a worthy conclusion to what is undoubtedly one of the great historical fictions of the age, sustaining clarity, tension and depth with a rare consistency. 

The Mirror and the Light  
Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate, 912pp, £25

This article appears in the 04 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10