Hilary Mantel’s Triple Play
Book commentary by Jude Joseph Lovell
I decided early while reading The Mirror & The Light, the third volume of Hilary Mantel’s challenging but remarkable trilogy of historical novels about Thomas Cromwell, a statesman and minister to the English king Henry VIII, that I could not write a conventional review. I don’t have the intellectual chops. But I knew right away I would still have something to say about this almost unprecedented literary achievement.
Cromwell might be most aptly described as a “fixer” for the aforementioned king—himself best known for breaking with the Catholic Church in 1529 when Pope Clement VII would not grant an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry her lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, thus ushering in the English Reformation.
The story goes that Mantel, already a novelist of some repute, was conducting research on the Tudor era of British history and realized that relatively little had been written about Thomas Cromwell. This in spite of the fact that he was integral to nearly everything that happened during Henry VIII’s tumultuous reign.
A great deal of Cromwell’s correspondence survives, and in reviewing it, Mantel recognized with her novelist’s eye that a whole saga about Cromwell and his machinations of power remained untold. This led initially to 2009’s Wolf Hall, which takes up Cromwell’s story from his youth in the late 15th century.
Wolf Hall was a monumental success worldwide and won the Man Booker Prize, the UK’s highest literary honor. But at some point early in the writing process, Mantel discovered she had more than one book on her hands. A sequel, harrowingly titled Bring Up the Bodies, appeared in 2012.
This second novel focused primarily on Cromwell’s orchestration of events to ensure the demise of Boleyn once King Henry had fallen out of love. The story concludes, chillingly, with Boleyn’s beheading. It also won the Booker—the first time in history both a novel and its sequel had ever been awarded the prize. Notably, Mantel also became the first female two-time winner of that honor.
Then began an eight-year interval while Mantel toiled over the final volume. Anyone who has read these novels will understand that the word “toiled” seems almost an understatement. Furthermore, Mantel has been saddled at times with health struggles, which she has discussed on occasion with the candor one associates with her books.
Nonetheless, the determined Mantel persisted. The final volume finally did appear in March of this year, clocking in at over 750 pages. It covers only a four-year period but details the complex circumstances around Cromwell’s eventual fall from the king’s grace and his untimely demise.
What is it that sets this historical trilogy apart? For English readers, and maybe for Anglophiles everywhere, Mantel’s epic tale is not just an astute history lesson. It is about the heart and soul of a nation—its very identity. The long history of the British monarchy and all that it represents is not just the backdrop but the essential theme—the molten core of the entire project.
Mantel understands this on a deep level. At different points in all three books she writes about English royalty perceptively and with authority, as in this example from The Mirror & The Light:
Is a prince even human? If you add him up, does the total make a man? He is made of shards and broken fragments of the past . . . His dreams are not his own, but the dreams of all England: the dark forest, deserted heath; the stir in the leaves, the dragon’s footprint; the hand breaking the waters of a lake. His forefathers interrupt his sleep to castigate, to warn, the shake their heads in mute disappointment.
For Americans, this may confirm a long-standing view: that no one can self-aggrandize like the English. But there is no disputing the richness and the assurance of Mantel’s writing.
Which leads to a second reason why these novels have earned the rare double affirmation of commercial and critical success: the quality of their craftsmanship. Having developed her skills over many acclaimed previous books, Mantel’s toolbelt is loaded. By turns poetic, expressive, and dispassionately sharp, these novels allow the reader to experience all the sights, sounds, smells, and splendor of Medieval England.
We marvel at the sheer pageantry of the king’s lifestyle—the clothes, the finery, the bustle of footmen and ladies in waiting. But we are just as likely to cringe in terror at the scene of an execution or depiction of torture. At still other times, Mantel catches us off guard with a blunt stroke. Note Cromwell’s dismissive response to an insurrection of common folk from the outer reaches of the island: “As for the greater business of the realm—it does not stop because some arsewipes in the shires are waving pitchforks.”
Lastly, the Wolf Hall trilogy is worthwhile because of its penetrating examination of human power dynamics. It asks probing questions, applicable to any age: How does one attain a position of power and influence, and when one gets it, what must one do to maintain one’s grip on it?
In the Middle Ages in Britain, as perhaps nowhere else, the chasm between the haves and the have-nots yawned widely. Lucky few were born into royalty or into families of generational wealth and repute. Millions of others were fated to be born, to live, and to die among the unwashed masses.
But Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son with no financial inheritance or significant lineage to build upon, proved himself the rare exception. As such, he captured Mantel’s imagination. In all three novels, his masterful manipulation of people and of events—achieved through his dexterous wit, slick tongue, and bold risk-taking—are manifest in scene after scene.
This trilogy of novels is as rewarding and potent as any historical fiction I have read. Yet their riches are not easily mined. With great industry and patience, Mantel painstakingly builds her saga, but she won’t coddle the reader. It concerns a rich and complicated era of history, and the writer brings it all to startling life. Ultimately, we are rewarded with a great artist delivering what she told NPR earlier this year was “the central project of my life.”
For me personally, the process of absorbing it all continues. But experiencing these defining events unfold across voluminous pages is a little like witnessing that most unlikely of plays in American baseball: the triple play. It’s a rare feat and an extraordinary thrill.
Photo credit by: Efe Kurnaz @efekurnaz (Istanbul Turkey).
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.