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Hilary Mantel Says Now-Complete Trilogy Was 'The Central Project Of My Life'

Hilary Mantel signs a copy of <em>The Mirror & the Light</em> in London on March 4, 2020.
Peter Summers
Getty Images
Hilary Mantel signs a copy of The Mirror & the Light in London on March 4, 2020.

It's time for the end of an era — one that began in the 16th century.

Hilary Mantel's much-loved trilogy about King Henry VIII's powerful chief minister Thomas Cromwell comes to an end this week, with the publication of the third book in her series,The Mirror & the Light.

The first book, Wolf Hall, and its sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, sold millions of copies, despite being doorstops — and were adapted into acclaimed stage and television dramas. Both won Man Booker prizes for their author — Mantel is the first woman and the first British author to boast a double win for the prestigious award.

So The Mirror & the Light arrives amidst huge anticipation. When a mysterious billboard featuring the Tudor rose of King Henry VIII and the quote, "So now get up" — appeared last year in London's Leicester Square — people went nuts. Those in the know recognized the cryptic quote as the very first words of Mantel's book, Wolf Hall — and knew it was the teaser for The Mirror & the Light. One breathless reply to a tweet that featured a picture of the billboard read: "Oh my goodness, I hope ... it has a happy ending, Cromwell deserves it..."

Spoiler alert — it does not. It ends with the beheading that anyone familiar with Tudor history — or, erm, Wikipedia — expects.

At the center of the books is the brilliant — and ruthless — Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII — and yes, there is a beheading at the end of The Mirror & the Light. And there's one at the beginning, too — the moment that Henry's second wife is executed. "The moment her head falls, we are into the action and we are seeing the story unfold from behind Cromwell's eyes," says Mantel.

Anne Boleyn is dead — along with five men close to King Henry VIII. It is the aftermath of a startling and dramatic coup — that may or may not be over — orchestrated by Cromwell. Mantel describes the atmosphere at court as poisonous and jittery, with Cromwell in the center of it. "He is now such a big player. He is in charge of so many facets of the government of England. All the business of England comes across his desk — and every day is a crisis. "

Mantel did years of research for all three books, and the fictional Thomas Cromwell is portrayed in minute detail in The Mirror & the Light — a sly wit, a loving father, a calculating minister, and a formidable foe. In real life, Cromwell's success was simply unheard of for the son of a blacksmith from Putney — and his rise is recorded in detail because he had his hand in everything from his position at court.

But his early life is a blank, and Mantel fills it in for us. "There are certain traditions and stories about him, but he never talked about his past," Mantel explains. "And I think that wasn't just for the sake of repression. I think some of his power lay back there in the shadows because people couldn't add him up. They didn't know where he had been, who he knew, what he'd seen. So it may be that some of the air of mystery was deliberate."

Cromwell is best known for his role in Henry VIII's break with the Catholic Church in England — ushering in the Protestant Reformation there.

But in life, and in the books, he was also kind of fixer for the King — providing counsel, strategy, and crucially, wives.

Mantel never lets the reader forget that Cromwell has blood on his hands. He's responsible for trumping up charges against Anne Boleyn and the men who are executed with her. He is as facile with words and numbers as he is with rumor and intimidation.

But even though he's the right-hand man of a King who's most famous for his mistreatment of women and his wives, Cromwell seems to like women.

"He did, I think," says Mantel. "And after all — to put it another way — if you worked for Henry VIII, you had better at least try to understand women. You couldn't regard them just as chess pieces. And he realizes to get the women's point of view is another weapon he has in his hands."

In a pivotal scene at the beginning of Wolf Hall, Thomas talks to his wife about how women regard Catherine of Aragon, the aging wife whom Henry is trying to discard for her inability to provide him with a son and heir. Any woman would be sympathetic, she says — any woman who has lost a child, who has no son, who has no more hope of children. Cromwell thinks to himself — women spend time imagining what it's like to be each other.

"From then on, whether it's women or men, he deploys empathy as a weapon." Mantel says. "He realizes, you know, that it is very important to take the time to creep into someone else's imagination. If you can find out what people want, you can very often give it to them at little cost to yourself. And that's easier than riding roughshod over them."

Cromwell's insights about human nature protect him for a long time. He's almost too clever for most of the trilogy, and indeed for much of The Mirror & the Light. It seems impossible that he will ever fall — and when he does, it is swift and startling both to him and the reader. But in the end, despite the mystery and power he manages to conjure for himself — he cannot escape who he is, says Mantel.

"His big mistake was being born Thomas Cromwell of Putney. Cromwell was so unpopular because people then thought, we shouldn't be ruled by boys from Putney. We should be ruled by dukes and earls because this is natural, and this is God's ordinance. So Cromwell was viewed not just as an upstart but as someone who was subverting the natural order."

And even though anyone with a search engine knows how Cromwell meets his end — this is a book that vibrates with suspense.

We can't intervene because we're like powerless gods. We're sitting above the narrative. We see the danger coming, but we can do nothing to avert it.

"It's got the fascination of seeing someone walk towards a cliff edge," Mantel says, describing the pleasure of historical fiction. "How will they react when they get there and what will those final thoughts be? And of course, with any suspenseful drama today, we want to interrupt to lean in and say, be careful. But you see, we can't intervene because we're like powerless gods. We're sitting above the narrative. We see the danger coming, but we can do nothing to avert it."

Mantel is already working on the stage version of The Mirror & the Light, but sadly, for the millions of fans devoted to the trilogy, she laughs, and says there's no life without Cromwell — she's done writing about Tudor England.

"The conclusion I've come to is there won't be another big historical novel because I won't live so long — considering what I impose on myself by way of research," she says. "I think from the first pages of Wolf Hall, from the first paragraph, I knew it was something special. I thought: This is the central project of my life. And everything I know, everything I can do, is going to go into these books. After that, I fold my hands, and it's over to you, the reader."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barrie Hardymon
Barrie Hardymon is the Senior Editor at NPR's Weekend Edition, and the lead editor for books. You can hear her on the radio talking everything from Middlemarch to middle grade novels, and she's also a frequent panelist on NPR's podcasts It's Been A Minute and Pop Culture Happy Hour. She went to Juilliard to study viola, ended up a cashier at the Strand, and finally got a degree from Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars which qualified her solely for work in public radio. She lives and reads in Washington, DC.