Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Mirror and the Light (book)

Pengo’s 2020 Summer Book Club
Alexander, rumors only grow.
And we both know what we know.
On this date, four hundred and eighty years ago, July 28, 1540, Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, Order of the Garter, Viceregent and Lord Privy Seal, was beheaded at the Tower of London by order of King Henry VIII for crimes of treason and heresy.

Spoiler alert.

Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels on the life of Thomas Cromwell each conclude with a decapitation. Wolf Hall (2009) with that of Thomas More, Bring Up the Bodies (2012) with Anne Boleyn, and with the subject himself in The Mirror and the Light, which was released March 5 of this year.

My wife gifted me with the hardcover just as we all went into quarantine. It took four months to read half of it, and the past week to read the rest. I thought several times of putting it aside, but I have developed an attachment to the character of Cromwell, not only as Mantel has painted him but also in the performance by Mark Rylance in the six-part BBC adaptation of the first two novels.

Thomas Cromwell
(Hans Holbein, 1532-33)
Novelists who set a specific number of books to complete an epic story often find themselves trying to cram too much into the last one (Deathly Hallows comes to mind -- Half-Blood Prince, too, for that matter, maybe I'm just thinking of Harry Potter) and Mirror is the longest of this set, but for most of the first half I felt we were spending far too much time on tangential relationships and all the weird dishes that English men of wealth used to have for dinner.

Also, I have poor reading habits. I can take in maybe a page or two before bed and then I am spent. Summer vacation affords me the opportunity to sit and read, for hours. This past week I avoided work, both in my employment and my art. I set it aside. I vacationed. I went fishing with my son and I read this book. Once I could spend all of my time living in it, it came alive for me.

And it hurt. I knew how it was going to end, but I avoided delving into history to learn how or why beforehand. I even entertained the idea that he outlived the king and was put to death in the chaotic years that followed, but I was pretty sure there was no way that was how it actually happened. Henry VIII used people up, again and again, and it was Cromwell’s complicity in these acts which made it all but certain that he would eventually no longer be seen as useful to this monstrous monarch.

Rylance as Cromwell
(Wolf Hall, 2015)
It makes sense that the primary reason for Cromwell’s fall from grace was that, having successfully played the role of pimp for a monarch who was increasingly desperate for a male heir, he contracted a fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, whom history has regarded as the king did himself: fugly.

To the author’s credit, however, she creates an alternative scenario inspired by true events. The ever-playful Tudor decides to surprise his betrothed before their appointed first meeting. This was a habit of his, as illustrated in Shakespeare’s All Is True, putting on disguises to the delight of the ladies long past the age when such behavior was deemed appropriate.

In Mantel’s version of events, unprepared for the arrival, it was the German Anna whose first reaction to the middle-aged, somewhat lame and already overweight Henry was a reflection of his own physical state that no one had yet shown him.

The best way to read.
Again, I am put in mind of the BBC adaptation, in which Damian Lewis portrays a hot king Henry, and wonder, if they are to create three more episodes to bring the tale to its conclusion, whether or not they would use the Billions star and if it is even possible to make this actor unattractive.

Cromwell’s downfall as depicted is remarkable, he never loses his wit (nor Mantel hers, the author’s sense of humor is a particular delight) and his death handled in a manner in keeping with my own recent philosophical imaginings on the subject. It broke my heart.

What should I read next?

No comments:

Post a Comment