Letting Go of Thomas Cromwell

If Hillary Mantel herself can’t bear to part with her well-beloved protagonist, how on earth should the rest of us?

In Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell is first called a person by his great enemy, the Duke of Norfolk, who takes offense at his manners. Norfolk then “bursts out, ‘Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a … person?’”1 From this point on, the language of personhood sticks to Cromwell like his ubiquitous lawyerly black, signaling at once his curiously substantial presence and his marginal social status. The epithet’s most complete version comes when Cromwell himself has occasion to meditate on personhood: “There are some people in this world,” he thinks, “who like everything squared up and precise, and there are those who will allow some drift at the margins. He is both these kinds of person.” If Cromwell’s fictional personhood comes to dominate Mantel’s version of Tudor England, then that’s partly because he’s so many kinds of person.

I can forgive anyone the fault of being excessively in love with this person. It’s been argued that the Wolf Hall novels—the Booker-winning Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012), and now, at last, The Mirror and the Light—have helped revive the historical-novel genre. This is a genre that, as James Wood claims in an otherwise laudatory review of the trilogy’s first two parts, is “somewhat gimcrack” and “not exactly jammed with greatness.”2 I tend to think that the historical novel’s bad reputation is both exaggerated and undeserved. But even if the success of Mantel’s historical fiction coincides with an uptick in the genre’s overall critical fortunes, I’d argue that its most durable achievement will be felt less at the level of genre—the form and capacities of which it doesn’t much extend or distort—than at that of character.

The great achievement of Wolf Hall and its sequels is the creation of Thomas Cromwell, person. I say “Thomas Cromwell, person” advisedly. As I’ve written elsewhere, one of the most interesting features of Wolf Hall is the way Cromwell comes to be associated with the epithet “person.”3 Cromwell’s odd qualities of personhood are what make The Mirror and the Light feel overlong and somewhat draggy; they’re also what make it worth reading, and celebrating, anyway.

Things were never going to end well, for Thomas Cromwell or his book.

While the Wolf Hall trilogy’s first and second volumes focused on Cromwell’s meteoric rise from man of law to Master Secretary, maker and breaker of Henry VIII’s marriages, The Mirror and the Light narrates his inevitable fall. On the novel’s first page, we join Cromwell as Anne Boleyn’s blood pumps out onto the scaffold: “Once the queen’s head is severed,” the opening sentence begins, “he walks away.” At the novel’s conclusion, we suffer through Cromwell’s own beheading: “He has vanished; he is the slippery stones underfoot, he is the last faint ripple in the wake of himself.”

A bad end, then—especially if, like me, you have been charmed by Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell as a man distinguished by more than his role as the king’s bagman, bully, and butcher. Mantel’s Cromwell is a scared boy as well as a loving family man; a generous patron to the dispossessed and the disadvantaged; a patriot blessed with a gift for languages and a cosmopolitan disposition; an evangelical with no patience for zealots; a loyal servant to masters who scarce deserve him; and a lusty man who, more often than not, keeps it in his hose.

I am exceedingly fond of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell. I would like to put my arms around the great bulk of his black-clad body. Though I knew of his bad end before the trilogy ever began, I cried when he died.

But Cromwell’s end is also bad in the other, regrettable, sense. The Mirror and the Light concludes one of the great contemporary experiments in historical reimagination and character construction; it also contains some passages of exquisitely fine writing, many of them found toward the ends of its many sections, 17 chapters, and six parts. At these moments of closure or transition, when the narrator’s consciousness finally floats free of the duty to transmute incident and memory into plot, the high stakes and occult uncertainties of Cromwell’s work and character unfurl in passages of free indirect style that are as good as any—and far better than most—in the canons of modern fiction.


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“So much travelling in the cold and wet,” concludes one short section, midway through a long chapter, in which Cromwell dreams that he is back on the riverine highways he traveled as a soldier and lawyer: “No bank in view because there is no bank, because the water has become eternity, because his flesh is dissolved in it; because his stories merge, all memories flatten to one.” And then the scene shifts and the dream breaks and we are no longer adrift in the flat flux of memory, but alive at a specific time and place in our hero’s past: “His uncle John says, mind, young Thomas: if you are going to learn, you can’t go running up and down the riverbank, you have to be where we can find you.” The Mirror and the Light is stuffed with moments like this, in which memory, setting, and event coalesce in passages of great pathos and insight.

In the end, though, these qualities are not enough to completely rescue a novel that, for all its obvious excellence, is too in love with its own protagonist and milieu to give them the burial they deserve. In Wolf Hall, several hundred pages of historical narrative lent depth and context—psychological as much as social—to an upward-mobility tale that might otherwise have been marred by the double fault of being dull and unbelievable. (It was neither: Wolf Hall is never less than surprising and convincing.) Bring Up the Bodies, its story distilling the events of only nine tense months, tells the well-worn tale of Anne Boleyn’s decline and fall with remarkable pace and intrigue. The Mirror and the Light, by contrast, overflows with matters of state and heart, spanning four years, from May 1536 to July 1540, during which Cromwell is at the center of every significant event in English history except his own arrest. Grappling with such a mass of detail, the historical narrative comes to seem strangely episodic, held together by not much more than the energetic brilliance of Cromwell’s circle and personality.

And so, despite the genius of its protagonist and the beauties of its scenes, The Mirror and the Light sometimes drags. That seems like a predictable thing to say about a very long novel, especially one concerned with well-known people and events, with popular interest in Tudor history working against the production of narrative tension and absorption. But if that explained everything, then Wolf Hall would also drag—and it doesn’t. The problem with The Mirror and the Light isn’t its length, or the extent of popular knowledge about Henry VIII’s reign; if anything, readers will be less familiar with events such as the Pilgrimage of Grace (a 1536 popular uprising and major plot point in the novel’s second part) than with the Boleyn marriage and its attendant dramas.

No, the suspicion is that, when faced with narrating the story of Cromwell in his pomp and at his end, Mantel couldn’t decide what to leave out. Either that—and it amounts to the same thing—or she couldn’t let Thomas Cromwell go.

If Cromwell’s fictional personhood comes to dominate Mantel’s version of Tudor England, then that’s partly because he’s so many kinds of person.

The Wolf Hall trilogy’s first and second parts were about many things, but they had three consistent subjects: Cromwell, Henry, and the country in whose name they sought, or pretended, to act. In The Mirror of the Light, by contrast, both monarch and England are harder to see; it’s not that they’re absent, exactly, so much as that they come into view only as and when they’re not eclipsed by the novel’s protagonist.

At one crucial point in the story, to which we’ll come in a moment, Cromwell writes a letter full of obsequious praise for Henry, calling him “the mirror and light of all other kings and princes,” even as he knows that he is anything but. A few paragraphs later, Mantel’s narrator describes how, “if Henry is the mirror, [Cromwell] is the pale actor who sheds no lustre of his own, but spins in a reflected light. If the light moves he is gone.”

Cromwell is a man of no family and small retinue, who lives and dies according to his ability to convince Henry that he is the only truly necessary counselor. As a metaphor for Cromwell’s precarious situation at court, then, “the mirror and the light” is sufficiently apt to deserve selection as a title phrase. But as a figure for how the novel coordinates its own relations between protagonist and world, it is exactly wrong. For Mantel’s readers, Cromwell is both mirror and light—he is, after all, such a person. It is Cromwell alone whose mind and movements give shadow and substance to the pale actors of English history.

This quality of personhood is easy to describe but hard to evidence: you’ll just have to read all three books. But a passage from just after the title phrase is invoked can give us a taste of what I mean.

That passage comes at the end of a chapter and shortly after Cromwell, in his capacity as Vicegerent for Spirituals, has been required to condemn to death his friend and coreligionist John Lambert. Miserable and afraid, he remembers his time in Italy as a youth. In a series of seven propositions beginning with “I saw,” he assembles a visual record of religious violence, from the blood on Christ’s robe through the “torturers nimble as dancers hurling stones at St. Stephen.” Then, suddenly, lurid witnessing gives way to guilty knowledge; “I saw” is replaced by “I have known.” And what Cromwell knows is that there are men and women—men and women like John Lambert—who have seen such suffering and still find themselves “no longer captive to misfortune.” Such people are martyrs, not judges; lawyers and priests, but not Vicegerents. At the end of the chapter, Cromwell is left alone with his own harsh judgment: “He sands his paper. Puts down his pen. I believe, but I do not believe enough. I said to Lambert, my prayers are with you, but in the end I only prayed for myself, that I might not suffer the same death.”

He won’t suffer the same death: though his enemies accuse him of heresy, Cromwell will die by the axe, on trumped-up charges of treason, and not by burning. But it is moments such as this, when not even Cromwell can reconcile his drifter’s sharp practice with his statesman’s straight edges, that The Mirror and the Light produces a brightness all its own.

Mantel has insisted that the Wolf Hall novels are not designed to rehabilitate Cromwell’s reputation, besmirched as it has been for years by the fans of Thomas More. “I do not run a Priory clinic for the dead,” she has joked, referring to the luxury drying-out clinic famous for saving the livers and reputations of British celebs. The enormous accomplishment of the trilogy’s first parts always made it likely that The Mirror and the Light would disappoint in some way. But if we were to anatomize the cultural significance of the Wolf Hall books a decade from now, then I think Mantel’s creation of a Cromwell we can love—and still believe in—would rank high on the list of her finest achievements. icon

  1. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, 2009), p. 163. Ellipsis and italics in original.
  2. James Wood, “Invitation to a Beheading: The Thomas Cromwell Novels of Hilary Mantel,” New Yorker, May 7, 2012. On the question of Mantel’s part in the historical novel’s alleged revival, see Rachel Teukolsky, “Why Does the Historical Novel Need to be Rescued?,” Public Books, January 14, 2013.
  3. For this argument, see chapter 4 of Matthew Hart, Extraterritorial: A Political Geography of Contemporary Fiction (Columbia University Press, 2020).
Featured image: Detail of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex (1485?–1540) by Jacobus Houbraken (1739). Wellcome Trust / Wikimedia Commons