On the 6th March, 2020 Alex Clark, a journalist and broadcaster, interviewed Hilary Mantel live on stage at the Royal Festival Hall. The two discussed Mantel’s the Mirror & the Light, the final part of her Cromwell trilogy that began with Wolf Hall. The conversation held an audience of some 1500 people absolutely spellbound.
The event began with two actors each reading from Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies to get the audience in the mood and to set the scene for the new book and the conversation’s context. As Mantel explained, for most of history Cromwell has been labelled a “bad man” and been viewed as such. Yet, as her books try to show and as she offered on stage, he was a man constantly climbing, looking always for the next opportunity for advancement, for ways to influence circumstances, and not always serving his own ambitions or those of his King. When Cromwell reaches the top of his ladder he’s reaching closer to God, drawn away into realms that his faith determines and of which he is unafraid. His tempting of fate is almost deliberate, logical.
Mantel said that after the success of the Wolf Hall trilogy she hoped that history would judge Thomas Cromwell differently. Perhaps opinions will move away from the “bad man” conclusions and towards more balanced thinking reflecting the man’s many achievements. She reminded her audience Thomas Cromwell was “a European … [engaged in] outreach to Europe” to strengthen trade, reduce risks of conflict, and religious fracturing. And he managed to do all three during the course of his life, despite the considerable personal risks involved. For instance, he was responsible for major reforms to how England was governed, reformed Parliament and drove improvements to the Poor Laws of the time.
It was a magical couple of hours at the Royal Festival Hall. We learnt that Mantel’s working day starts at 09:00 and ends “when my husband collects me from my writing place at seven o’clock”. We learned that the title of the final part of the trilogy refers to its mirroring of what went on in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, and the illumination of how Cromwell’s inevitable downfall came about.
And there was much more besides, particularly insights into Mantel’s process and approach to writing and the origins of the Cromwell trilogy. The idea came to her quite some time before she started working on Wolf Hall because “sometimes you have an idea, [but] that’s not the time to carry it through”. She also said that “there’s always a prospect that a project goes stale on you”. Fortunately that didn’t happen with Thomas Cromwell, a character with whom Hilary Mantel has spent over fifteen years. She advised writers to “make sure you have a robust character on your side, if you’re going to have to hang out with them this long.”
Somewhat self-deprecating, Mantel also said that historical fiction is her preferred genre because “I have no idea how to make a plot, but history will do it for me”. Mantel works by creating the fiction equivalent of a collage, creating multiple parts and pieces that she brings together into a cohesive narrative. If she gets stuck, she just ploughs on with something else, anything because it is all part of the writing process: “it’s a question of doing it… because that’s the job, it’s showing up at the desk … even you just pass this process, if you don’t write you enter a downward process of self-disgust.” Mantel reminded her audience that “your wastepaper basket is your friend, you can always write something”.
And best of all, following the conversation, Mantel read a passage from the Mirror & the Light that took many peoples’ breath away, including mine. It’s towards the end of the novel and Cromwell is contemplating his life and its impending ending. Thinking of the dead, Cromwell sees that “They are distilled into a spark, into an instant. There is air between their ribs, their flesh is honeycombed with light, and the marrow of their bones is molten with God’s grace.” If you’re planning to read this book but aren’t sure you’ll have the stamina to make it all the way through to page 904 go straight to page 866, where you will find this lovely passage. It and the following paragraphs might even inspire you to go back and plough through the preceding 865 pages, just to get the full force of these beautiful sentences. As Thomas Cromwell says somewhere, “endings, they’re all beginnings”.
Make no mistake this book is a challenge, because of its huge scope and the complexities involved in herding us along with Cromwell and the army of other characters as Cromwell’s end draws nigh. During the conversation at the Royal Festival Hall Mantel urged readers to take their time reading the Mirror and the Light because “you’re not reviewers, you don’t have to rush; you will not be paid to read it in 48 hours”. 48 days will be more like it.
However long it takes, many of us will feel bereft when they finally reach that last page and have to face the end of our intimate time with Thomas Cromwell sharing his world. It will be an awful moment, reading the final few sentences. But we can console ourselves with the thought that there will most certainly be another play and another television miniseries. As part of Cromwell’s growing body of admirers we can also console ourselves with the knowledge that Hilary Mantel has changed how he will be judged, and indeed how we judge history from now on.