The Covid-19 Lockdown means that reading is now, more than ever, a life saver. And books that once seemed intimidating, mighty tomes such as this are now just appetisers. Just think what we’ll know by the end of all of this..
After about 1900 pages of Wolf Hall, Bringing up the Bodies and now The Mirror and the Light, I imagined that turning the last page of Mantell’s latest novel, was similar to breasting the finishing tape of a marathon. Pride, satisfaction, disbelief, and memories of pain, struggle and pleasure. I’m still not quite sure in what proportions those last three are mixed.
The analogy breaks down almost immediately however, because, after a sticky opening hundred pages or so, I raced through the bulk of it, savouring every page. And, more to the point, the Marathon is all about the runner’s experience, the course itself just exists. But the reader’s experience, regardless of their personal response to it, is of a magnificent, towering achievement. There are passages of sublime beauty and power, and it drags you along, careering towards the inevitable end. It is a mighty work and will almost certainly pick up the Booker hattrick. The Booker, though, like all cultural awards, has never been an indicator of quality. Other factors cloud that judgement: The Zeitgeist. Timing. Events. Political correctness. Length. Subject matter. And on all of those counts, Mantell is a shoo in, not least because she has become the literary equivalent of Dame Maggie Smith or Judy Dench, a National Treasure.
Just to be clear about this, I loved Wolf Hall and thought Bringing up the Bodies was even better. I’m just not sure whether, in the end, all of those words were necessary. The main schtick of the trilogy seems to be, from Mantell’s many interviews, the idea that Thomas Cromwell was a working-class arriviste who needed to be rescued from the heavy hand of mainstream establishment condemnation. This was to be achieved by drilling directly into his imagined psyche and portraying him as a three dimensional, living breathing man of his time. This is achieved, but frankly that had been achieved by the end of Book 2 and I’m really not sure what this new one has added. Or at least, what it has added that could not have been accomplished in 500 pages. So example after example is piled on, accreting more and more detail. It’s almost Knaufsgaardian in its use of domestic detail. Many incidents seemed to be included simply so that Cromwell’s half of the conversations can be repeated later as evidence against him.
To this end, Mantell takes no prisoners in terms of the expectations she has of the reader. Hundreds of characters, many of whom have multiple names, come and go in scenes and conversations with little explanation. It is particularly tiresome when the previous book was published several years before. The list of characters at the beginning of the book is a warning of what’s in store. They will be, in most readers’ copies, the most well-thumbed pages in the book as the reader goes back and forth desperately trying to ascertain who exactly is Southampton, or Surrey or Wyatt.
To put Cromwell firmly centre-stage, he is always referred to as “He”, ostentatiously at times when he is sharing the stage with Henry VIII. Sometimes Mantell ties herself in knots maintaining this stylistic tic, while realising that she has to make it clear who “He” actually is. Hilary, love, its OK, we get it. We know you think that Cromwell is more important, more interesting than that King geezer. You really don’t have to keep going on about it.
The other stylistic quirk is the by now ubiquitous, terribly modern use of the present tense to make things more immediate, more dramatic. Generally, in the hands of lesser writers who have been advised by Boutique literary consultants, it’s terribly cliched, boring, inflexible and predictable. Mantell, in contrast, does it brilliantly. It does add immediacy and it does create tension when really none should exist because, let’s face it readers, we all know he’s going to die and how.
In the end, I just don’t think it’s worth it. More than a study of the man, it becomes a study of the religion and politics of the time. It’s a brutal, cruel, savage, amoral world, fuelled by ridiculous primitive disagreements over religion. Of course Cromwell is going to have his head chopped off because he is serving a childish psychopath who wanted to live the fairy story of Kingship and was going to scream and scream until he got what he wanted. And what he wanted was plentiful sex with a young sex nymph who idolised him and didn’t make him feel inadequate. He wanted to feel forever young and to show the world he was a thrusting macho proper man who could get a woman pregnant with a boy (because they were the only pregnancies that counted). This was a world where Cromwell, in his many internal musings, could think that cutting off someone’s head with an axe was proof of the gentle mercy of Henry and the superior civilization of England. The more gruesome details of the vile tortures and methods of execution of Spain, France and The Holy Roman Emperor almost convince one to agree with him. Until you catch yourself, shamefacedly, in the thought. In the end, I was left thinking that too much time has been spent fetishising this dreadful period of English history, agonising over the political and personal nuances and rivalries at play. Brutal dictators deserve less of our attention
The real interest is how things are still exactly the same, give or take the rack, being hung, drawn and quartered, or being burned alive. Boris Johnson is similarly childlike, petulant and wanting to be loved and for the true religion versus heretics, just substitute Brexiteers and Remainers. Dominic Cummings as Thomas Cromwell anyone?
This is a book that is definitely worth reading. It’s beautifully written by a writer at the height of her powers. There is much to enjoy and admire. It’s just not as good as the critics will tell you it is (probably without reading it, some of them), and the subject is not as important as Mantell has convinced herself it is. Why not read it and disagree with me? Let’s face it, you’ve got plenty of time in lockdown to do that. If things go badly, you’ve probably got enough time to read all three, starting at the beginning. Good luck