My books of the year 2020: Part 2: The Mirror and the Light

When I looked back at my favourite books of the year, I realised that I wanted to think about one book a great deal. This is why the last book of the Cromwell series was my book of the year for 2020.

This is the second in a short series of articles about my favourite reads of 2020. The first instalment is an overview. The others will follow over the next day or so.

My favourite book of 2020 is The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel. The third of the Thomas Cromwell books, this is a work of genius. Immersive, thrilling and beautiful.

This book is about power, politics and psychology – the realpolitik or game of power as it is played and the inner games of power that take place inside people’s minds.

Cromwell learned about power as a mercenary and then a banker in Italy, and has read Machiavelli. You could write a credible list of business mantras based on quotes like:

Wolsey always said, work out what people want, and you might be able to offer it; it is not always what you think, and may be cheap to supply.

However, this is a high stakes game – understanding the way Prince's mind works is a matter of life and death for Cromwell; as he says in Wolf Hall:

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.

To survive as long as he does, rise as high as he does, from runaway and hustler to the most powerful person in the country, he has to understand power in terms of grand strategy but also the psychological complexities of the king:

…princes are not as other men. They have to hide from themselves, or they would be dazzled by their own light. Once you know this, you can begin to erect those face-saving barriers, screens behind which adjustments can take place, corners for withdrawal, open spaces in which to turn and reverse.

In her 2017 Reith Lectures, Mantel talked about historical fiction as taking place the gaps between the facts. Some deeds are recorded, but the emotional reality of the people living then have to be deduced, intuited and imagined. She has immersed herself in the facts – and then let her mighty imagination loose on the bits in between. Mantel respects and works with her imagination more consciously than any writer I have ever heard talk about their work. Imagination for her has edge, holds peril even for the writer, is a tool with palpable power.

The bits in between the facts of history are the obvious but missing questions of history – how did he feel? How do tyrants not know they are tyrants, but imagine themselves victims and saviours? How do you work in the thick of politics where a wrong move means death and not lose your mind? What is it like to sit in a cell awaiting death? How does the person condemning you square the viciousness of their deeds with their conscience? This isn't a story–tour of the past. It is the sometimes painful struggle of what it was to be in that time, to navigate the social and psychological topography of Henry VIII’s court and Tudor London.

One criticism of the Cromwell trilogy is that Mantel imposes a modern perspective on Cromwell’s outlook. But Cromwell is an inventor of modernity, his mind is different from those around him – hence his disdain for superstition.

The purpose of ghost stories is extortion, generally: to frighten poor folk into paying for prayers and charms to protect them.

He has a merchant’s eye for the systems of power and in this new world of printing presses and growing literacy, that beats theology, nobility and poetry hands down when it comes to getting things done. He is “a ready man” who gets things done. Old wealth and power uses him to do what they can’t and he accumulates his own resources as a result.

And whatever people’s beliefs are, power remains the same game whether you’re a player in the medieval or modern versions. Looking at political power through the eyes of someone who understands it so well, you return to the the headlines and realities of your own time with some of his guile. You see the same shapes of fools and chancers, flattered princes and unashamed manipulators, the greater goods and the unforgivable greed. You see the present afresh for having looked back in time for a while.

The most modern aspect of the psychology of Mantel’s imagined Cromwell may be is his insights about the nature of self, its slippery nature, and both the questions this raise about who he is and how he manipulates or guides the king’s changing story of who he is and what he has done:

You look back into your past and say, is this story mine; this land? Is that flitting figure mine, that shape easing itself through alleys, evader of the curfew, fugitive from the day? Is this my life, or my neighbour’s conflated with mine, or a life I have dreamed and prayed for; is this my essence, twisting into a taper’s flame, or have I slipped the limits of myself – slipped into eternity, like honey from a spoon? Have I dreamt myself, undone myself, have I forgotten too well


He closes his eyes. What does God see? Cromwell in the fifty-fourth year of his age, in all his weight and gravitas, his bulk wrapped in wool and fur? Or a mere flicker, an illusion, a spark beneath a shoe, a spit in the ocean, a feather in a desert, a wisp, a phantom, a needle in a haystack? If Henry is the mirror, he is the pale actor who sheds no lustre of his own, but spins in a reflected light. If the light moves he is gone

In Cromwell’s world, people who understand how private psychology and public power mix win. Those who stick hard by principles or ideas end up getting stuck by them. Thomas More dies for his principles, others are hoist on the petard of courtly love, incriminating poems and letters the evidence of ideals that are recast as treason. Cromwell’s conversation with Lady Shelton is cuttingly disdainful of the troubadour nonsense that addles courtiers minds:

‘It is all my cousin Anne’s fault, I agree. It was she who taught us to be selfish, and to reach for our desires. Amor omnia vincit, she said.’

‘Perhaps for a season it did.’

‘Love conquers all?’ Poor gentle creature, she bends her head. ‘With respect, my lord, love couldn’t conquer a gosling. It couldn’t knock a cripple down. It couldn’t beat an egg.’

Despite his downfall, Cromwell’s legacy is mighty – breaking England’s church from Rome and the publication of the first bible in English, an act less often recognised than martyrs burning at the stake, but far more consequential. His reputation lies tattered for centuries, until Mantel resurrects it with a story that prompted reevaluation of him in academia and popular culture alike, but he changed the world by changing what England read, how it thought and what it did.

We have agreed a translation, and it is Tyndale’s, as far as we have his work, but it goes under another scholar’s name. We have put Henry’s own image on the title page. We want him to see himself there. We need him to set forth a Bible under his own licence, and set the scriptures up in every church, for all to read who can. We need to get it out in such numbers that it can never be recalled or suppressed. When the people read it there will be no more of these armed and murdering Pilgrims. They will see with their own eyes that nowhere in the scripture does it mention penances and popes and purgatory and cloisters and beads and blessed candles, or ceremonies and relics –’