The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel.
This is the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels recounting the tempestuous partnership between Tudor King Henry VIII and his utterly devoted ‘Fixer’, Thomas Cromwell – Cromwell, who rose to Lord Privy Seal, and whose power, with the king’s approval, became so great and all-encompassing that Henry’s nobles feared that such a base-born yokel would eventually become a danger to them and their own dreams of glory: such delusions of grandeur so far above his station have to be stopped!
The story opens where ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ finished, with the beheading of Anne Boleyn, that incestuous, adulterous whore, leaving Henry free to make plans to wed young Jane Seymour, who will surely give him a son to ensure the Tudor Succession. His daughters Mary and Elizabeth have been declared bastards, and Mary has been coerced into renouncing her Catholic faith (on pain of death, Cromwell makes clear) so that her father may renounce Roman beliefs, establish the Church of England – and plunder the treasure and lands of the Monasteries and Abbeys. The wealth pouring into the king’s treasury is enormous, but a large proportion must be spent arming England against its Catholic enemies; Cromwell has never been more busy, lining his own pockets handsomely along the way – naturally.
In this mammoth last episode, Ms Mantel relates the facts of history in ways that make them all seem new; each character is beautifully drawn, especially Henry, that Monarch who believes utterly in his divine right to have that which no-one else does, and Cromwell is always there to execute his wishes – never mind that foreign diplomats regard Henry as ‘a man of great endowments, lacking only consistency, reason and sense’: with Cromwell behind him (in the shadows) the end will always justify the means.
Until it doesn’t: Jane Seymour dies giving birth to the much-longed-for son, but the next marriage to Anne of Cleves, engineered by Cromwell to form an alliance with German Protestant princes is disastrously unsatisfactory, both to the ageing king, no longer the handsome man in his flattering portraits, and Anne, not the beauty that Holbein has painted. Because Henry cannot and will not blame himself, the blame falls on Cromwell – who else? With predictable consequences.
Ms Mantel’s talents are such that she evokes in effortless detail a time when the power-mad and the power-hungry jostled for favoured positions with the Supreme Power – crushing the powerless along the way. She was awarded the Booker Prize for ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’: (search drop box) could she be lucky a third time? SIX STARS