Who could have imagined, in the early 2000s when rumours of the novel’s death – or imminent replacement by the tablet – were rife, that on a rainy night in 2020 hundreds of readers would queue to get their hands on the 900-page third part in a fictional trilogy about 16th-century England? For her fans, the publication of Hilary Mantel’s 12th novel, The Mirror and the Light, on World Book Day is a glorious prospect.
We know the bones of the story that will unfold from this brick of a book, about the further rise (following two previous volumes) and eventual fall of Henry VIII’s adviser Thomas Cromwell, who had his head chopped off at Tower Hill on 28 July 1540. But Mantel’s conjuring of the vanished world of the Tudors has been likened by critics to a kind of magic. The Guardian’s reviewer, Alexandra Harris, described the novel’s narrative voice as “a spirit or angel”.
The terrain Mantel entered 15 years ago is a period when the modern state and church were in the process of being born. That she should have found herself so deeply immersed in this crucial episode, at a moment when England and the UK are once again in a state of internal and external flux, only adds to an already resonant undertaking. The palaces, paintings and tales of Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I are among the most familiar chapters in our nation’s history. But the kings, queens and cardinals in popular tellings of this past are often little more than stock characters. Mantel does not diverge from the record of facts, names and places. She pays scrupulous homage to academic historians, and the “unseen army” of curators and archivists. But where there are gaps, she invents, building an imagined world around her central argument about the pivotal role of her main character, the self-made Cromwell, who rose from nowhere to become Henry VIII’s right-hand man, and one of the most powerful people on earth.
She describes this raw material as “the central ground of Englishness”, and you do not have to take her interpretation of events literally to believe that this act of re-engagement, by readers as well as writer, means something. The trilogy has struck a chord, with a Booker prize each for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, 1.5m copies sold, a stage play and a television adaptation starring Mark Rylance and Claire Foy. Booksellers expect The Mirror and the Light to be their book of the year.
There is something uplifting, for literature and history lovers, in witnessing the past brought back to life with such a bang. There are no doubt pangs of envy too. Writers, libraries and high-street bookshops are all struggling against online competition and cuts. Research released last week showed that under-18s today read less than ever before. The handheld screen, with its moving images, is a formidable competitor. Yet the novel remains in remarkably lively form. Mantel is exceptional, but far from alone. All power to her for once again raising the bar.