I'm in awe of Hilary Mantel. She brings an influential man from Henry VIII's 16th century Tudor England, Thomas Cromwell, to life with conversation, aspirations, and thoughts we easily recognize from our own world, yet we would never mistake him for someone other than from his own time. He's especially good with the ladies, not as a suitor but because he notices them as people, and talks easily with them, to the bafflement of many blustering, strutting noblemen around him.
For example, in The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell continues to work hard to preserve Henry's daughter (with Katherine of Aragon) Mary's life. She's stubborn, unlikeable, and a danger to herself because her devotion to her mother, to Catholicism, and her refusal to acknowledge her father as head of the Church is grounds for treason and execution. Cromwell knows what a public relations nightmare that would be, and also, one never knows who may be in power in the future. He offers her every opportunity to secretly hold her own counsel while officially supporting Henry. Meanwhile he can't help but despair of her physical clumsiness. When he finally engineers Mary's public acceptance of Henry, Cromwell hovers with her ladies in waiting as she ceremonially descends a staircase in an unattractive gown of her own choosing, Meg the train-bearer behind her.
Mary glances around, as if to check he is following. Meg gives her train a shake. She seems to steer her from behind, with clucks and murmurs, like a woman driving a cart. When Mary stops, Lady Meg stops. What if Mary panics? What if she thinks at this last moment, I cannot do it? But, he murmurs to Lady Shelton, my anxiety is not so much, will she change her mind--it's will she trip over her feet and land before her father in a heap.
Mary's just one of the matters Cromwell oversees as the handful of years the book covers plays out before his own execution. Henry relies on him more and more, and Cromwell's power is known beyond the borders of England. Cromwell has loyal men in his household whom the king also comes to trust and rely on. Many, perhaps most, of the nobility are jealous and righteously convinced that low-born Cromwell is underserving of his elevated position as Lord Privy Seal, on the king's council, and other titles. They persuade the king that Cromwell's after the throne himself. Just look at his attachment to Mary.
By about the last hundred pages, Cromwell, unsurprised, feels the current of danger. The new marriage he's achieved for Henry has failed because Henry, who believes in romantic love, is not attracted to his new bride. (Hilary Mantel imagines a florid, extremely overweight, unattractively old Henry--depicted otherwise in a painting shown to his prospective young queen--surprising her in her chambers and eliciting a reaction of distaste. Henry can never get over that.)
At the next council meeting the Lord Chancellor says, 'If the king and queen are civil to each other by day, it will help counter the rumours. And I think we can rely on them for that.'
'When he was with the other one,' Fitz says, 'and he couldn't tup her, he blamed witches.'
'Superstition,' Cranmer says. 'He knows better now.'
Norfolk says, 'Well, Cromwell? What to do?'
He says, "I have done nothing, but for his safety and happiness.'
He overhears a young courtier--it is a Howard of course, the young Culpepper: 'If the king cannot manage it with the new queen, Cromwell will do it for him. Why not? He does everything else.'
His friend laughs. What alarms him is not their mockery. It is that they take no care to keep their voices low.
When the council meets they should, he feels, put down sand to soak up the blood. It is like the champ clos for a tournament, sturdily fenced to stop the spectators getting in or the combatants getting out. The king stands in a watchtower, judging every move.
Eventually the king is persuaded, and walks away from Cromwell. Cromwell ends up in the Tower before his execution, a place where he has sent and visited many people. He knows Henry will not change his mind.
I read the last pages in stops and starts, out of order, because I didn't want to face the approaching horror of his execution. Cromwell was ruthless in doing the king's will, but I liked and respected Mantel's version of him, and through him vicariously living in the upper echelons of Tudor England power. I realized addiction to power is the same no matter where it falls in history. Mantel's depiction of Cromwell's last days is a meditation on a life and an acceptance of fate. This Cromwell will linger in my thoughts for a long, long time.