Friday, February 05, 2021

The Mirror & The Light is Hilary Mantel's apotheosis

I have finally got around to reading the last of Hilary Mantel's excellent Thomas Cromwell trilogy, and The Mirror & The Light is every bit as good as Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, and then some.

The quality of the writing is astonishing, and she somehow contrives to keep it up for nearly 900 pages. This would normally be long enough to intimidate me into avoiding it completely - I read so slowly and painstakingly - but I have settled into this particular tome, luxuriating and glorying in its class and its transcendence. 

Characters from the previous books continue to develop, in all their complexity, wit and malice, and several new ones are introduced. It is sometimes hard to keep track of the myriad personalities at play, especially given the various titles and nicknames they employ, although there is a handy-dandy guide at the beginning of the book.

Ms. Mantel's language, both in the more descriptive passages and in the dialogue, seems quite modern and familiar, and yet she is also employing some ancient vocabulary and phrasing, little used in this day and age, that makes it seem convincingly medieval at the same time. Sometimes poetic, sometimes salty, sometimes deadpan I don't know quite how an educated Tudor would have spoken, and I don't really care, but this hybrid of her own devising is a wonderful compromise. It is full of courtly elegance, but immediately comprehensible and even contemporary, like a too-perfumed courtesan masking the rank odours of too few baths (my own contribution to the genre). It is quite a feat and, in my view, quite a triumph. 

Just a few little snippets, almost at random:

About his neck is a heavy gold chain, where the emblems of the Howards alternate with the Tudor rose. Under his shirt, in a filigree case, he wears the relics of saints, faded hairs and splinters of bone; on his sword hand, a stout gold band, set with a greyish diamond like a chipped tooth.

'Why would he do it now, when the sentence is already passed, his proven offences so rank that the most merciful prince who ever reigned would not remit his punishment. For I should think that if he were to be excused the penalty, the common people would stone him in the street; or failing that, God would strike him down.' 'And we should spare God the trouble,' Richard said. 'He has much to do.'

We will dress the city for Jane. At every corner a paradise, with a maiden seated in a rose arbour, the roses being striped, argent, vermilion, a serpent coiled about the apple tree, and singing birds, trapped by Adam, hanging in cages from the bough.

'I do not understand you, Cremuel. You are not afraid, when you should be afraid. You are like someone who has loaded the dice.' 'Loaded the dice?' He says. 'Is that what people do?'

Christophe's head declines from view, a greasy planet in a crooked cap.

The very swans on the river stunned with heat, the trees drooping, the hounds from the courtyard making their hound music, till their bell-like voices withdrew into the distance, and the train of gallant horsemen moved away over the meadows, and the queen knelt praying in the afternoon light, and the king who went hunting never came back.

She is quite simply the best historical fiction author writing today. Only 750 pages still to go. Bring it on!

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