Review 1582: The Mirror and the Light

Best of Ten!
At last, Hilary Mantel has produced this long-awaited third volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, begun with Wolf Hall. One of the remarkable traits of this trilogy is that it lives fully within the thoughts of its main character, and never has a character been so thoroughly drawn.

The Mirror and the Light begins with the beheading of Anne Boleyn, which Cromwell has largely brought about at the urging of Henry VIII. Indeed, he has been avenged against most of the people who ruined his first and beloved master, Cardinal Wolsey, and Anne Boleyn was one of them.

However, his service is now devoted to that of his current master, Henry VIII. He sees that service to bring down Henry’s enemies but also to save Henry from the worst of his excesses. One of his first acts is to save Mary Tudor’s life by bringing her to obedience to her father. He also works to keep the realm within the Protestant religion. So, after the death of Henry’s third queen, Jane, following childbirth, he tries to find Henry a wife who will bring him allies from the Protestant German states. For England is alone and open to attacks from all Catholic countries.

I know my Tudor history, so I knew all along how this would end. The novels show a man who can be ruthless but who is also charitable, kind, and loyal. Not all of his cheerful, unruly household of semi-adopted sons turn out to be as loyal to him.

The last thirty pages or so of this novel had me in tears. For me, there can be no better compliment to a book.

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Day 857: Dark Fire

Cover for Dark FireAt the start of this second Matthew Shardlake mystery, Matthew’s disillusionment with his master Thomas Cromwell has caused him to break free from Cromwell. He has had his own law practice for the past three years. The rumor now is that Cromwell may be failing in his influence over Henry VIII after he backed the marriage of Henry with Anne of Cleves. The political maneuverings around Cromwell overshadow the entire novel.

But first Matthew takes on a case for a friend, Joseph Wentworth, whose niece Elizabeth has been accused of murdering her 12-year-old cousin Ralph by pushing him into a dry well. Although no one actually witnessed the crime, both his sisters were on the scene shortly afterwards and say that Elizabeth was the only one there. Elizabeth herself isn’t talking.

Matthew goes to see her in prison and is struck by her expression of fury. In court, he tries to argue lack of competency, but according to the laws of the time, if she won’t speak, she must be pressed until she will, a cruel death by crushing. Matthew is unable to prevent her from being sentenced to be pressed.

Next, he is summoned to see Cromwell by a rude young man named Jack Barak. Matthew learns that Cromwell was offered the secret of a powerful weapon called Dark Fire, or Greek Fire. This secret was brought back from the East years before by a monk. A container of it was found by Michael Cristwood in a deconsecrated abbey, along with the formula, and he and his alchemist brother worked on the formula and a dispenser before demonstrating the weapon to Cromwell. Now Cromwell has promised a demonstration to the king in 10 days, but the Cristwoods have disappeared.

Cromwell wants Matthew and Barak to find the Dark Fire and the formula within ten days. He is counting on this discovery to save his position. Matthew makes a deal with Cromwell—if he will save Elizabeth from pressing, Matthew will look for the Dark Fire.

Matthew and Barak soon find Michael Cristwood dead but no sign of the apparatus or formula. Two thugs seem to be just ahead of them, murdering anyone who knows about Dark Fire and attempting to murder Matthew and Barak. Soon it becomes clear to Matthew that some powerful patron is behind the thugs, but who is it?

Although this Matthew Shardlake novel also has a powerful sense of place, London during a sultry 1540 summer, his investigation seems bogged down in this novel. He just seems to be questioning the same people over and over to little result. In any case, I was far more interested in the mystery of Elizabeth and her cousin, which was only incidental to the story. Some of the truth of that case seemed apparent almost at once, although not to our protagonist.

Still, I will continue with the series. I have as a goal to read all the Walter Scott Prize winners and nominees, and Samson’s Heartstone, the fifth in this series, is on the list. But I want to read the books in order. So, I’m committed to the series at least until book five.

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Day 84: Bring Up the Bodies

Cover for Bring Up the BodiesBest Book of the Week! Year!

If Wolf Hall was a wonderful historical novel, Bring Up the Bodies is masterly. In this second of a trilogy, Hilary Mantel continues the story of Thomas Cromwell. Bring Up the Bodies is more focused than the last book, because it deals with a much shorter time period and defined subject–the downfall of Anne Boleyn.

The writing is elegant and impeccable. I have read a few comments that Wolf Hall was sometimes difficult to follow because the readers could not always tell who was meant by “him” or “he.” Mantel has written both books using a strict third person limited point of view, from that of Cromwell, and people don’t think of themselves by their first names. Hence, the difficulty, which I did not notice as a problem in Bring Up the Bodies. This technique is very difficult to employ successfully–we are much more used to a third person that changes from character to character or even to third person omniscient. But Mantel uses it effortlessly to create a memorable character in Cromwell–kind but implacable, one who fosters the growth of others but does not forget the crimes and indignities committed against Cardinal Wolsey, whom he loved as as a father.

Henry VIII has already decided he wants to rid himself of Anne Boleyn and marry Jane Seymour, but Anne has one more chance. She is carrying a child, and if it is born alive and is a boy, she is safe. Henry must have an heir, and he has decided that if he hasn’t been given one, God must have found some fault with his marriage to Anne just as there was one for his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Thomas Cromwell must find him some way out of his difficulties.

Of course, Cromwell helped Anne to her position in the first place, but the Boleyns have made many enemies in their enjoyment of power, and they have treated him with disdain. More importantly, Anne Boleyn destroyed the Cardinal, and her brother mocked him in his downfall.

From the moment you begin reading, you find yourself plunged into the Tudor world of shifting politics and intrigue. Of course, we know what happens to Anne Boleyn, yet the novel maintains its suspense. The Boleyn and Howard families are going to suffer a huge defeat, but they will go down fighting.

Day 77: Wolf Hall

Cover for Wolf HallBest Book of Week 16!

This is a good time to write about Wolf Hall, because I was thrilled to learn that Hilary Mantel’s sequel to it has just come out. My copy is arriving soon. Mantel is always an interesting writer whose work does not occupy any one genre, although her last few books have been historical fiction. Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize and was one the best books I read in 2010.

The novel looks at the political and religious machinations of Henry VIII through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from low origins to become Henry’s chief minister. Although Cromwell has traditionally been viewed as Henry’s “heavy,” recent historians have looked at his career more kindly, showing that his work as chief minister brought England into more modern statehood and that his changes created more order for government functions that were less controlled by the whims of nobility.

Mantel depicts Cromwell as a loyal man who cares for his dependents and works to reform England. He builds up a great household as he moves from the position of secretary to Cardinal Wolsey to work for the king. Later, after the Cardinal’s downfall, he slowly, almost imperceptibly, works to bring down those who furthered their own interests by destroying the Cardinal, including the rapacious Boleyns.

Cromwell is loving to his family and friends, completely faithful to the Cardinal and then to Henry, intelligent, able in many spheres of work, and decent. Mantel paints a charming pictures of his home life. In contrast, she turns the tables on Thomas More, venerated for centuries, showing him as a sadistic torturer of Protestants who is in love with his own martyrdom.

Cromwell meets Jane Seymour when she is a young, lonely lady’s maid to the queen, teased and neglected by the rest of the court, and feels pity for her. Later, after he is long widowed, he falls in love with her. The title of the book is the name of her ancestral home, Wolf Hall.

Mantel’s approach is understated, leaving the reader sometimes to connect the ideas. The details in this novel seem completely authentic, and Mantel handles the period brilliantly. She somehow manages to generate tension and suspense even about things we know all about, like what will happen to Anne Boleyn.