An Interior Novel for a Time of Solitude by Sharon Bruni
Currently, I am reading The Mirror and the Light, the last of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s Master Secretary. Again, I find myself very fortunate to be able to be lost in the final installment of what has been for me another memorable reading experience. Mantel’s two previous books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, have both been awarded the Man Booker Prize, an unprecedented feat.
Although the Tudor period has been an overrepresented (for understandable reasons) subject matter in both non-fiction and fiction, Mantel manages to find a space within the genre that feels entirely fresh and modern. I feel she has placed me, the reader, so tightly inside the capacious head of Cromwell that I can feel the pressure of his very thoughts being organized and pre-articulated. When reading these novels, from such an intimate perspective, I never feel that I am in a position to judge the historical Cromwell: he exists in the present moment of the page. This is what is most remarkable about these novels. How does she manage to make such well-worked subject matter leave behind the historical lens that most, even well-regarded historical fiction, cannot erase?
The Mirror and the Light is a perfect companion for times of solitude. It is a book of interior spaces, be it the hyper-vigilant thoughts of Cromwell in the hostile Tudor court, or contrastingly his beautifully described domestic life that give us readers pauses of needed respite. Mantel’s language for me is at its most exquisite when describing the details of the mundane, such as this passage on Thomas’ clothing; “The colors of his working wardrobe are those sombre and expensive shades the Italians call berettino: the grey-brown of leaves around the feast of St Cecilia, the grey-blue of Advent light.”
All the books in this series are available in Overdrive, in both e-book and e-audio format. Unfortunately, they have a considerable wait list. However, the good news is that PBS’ Masterpiece Theater produced another prestige drama series that stands up to quality of the books, and it is available for you to view now on Hoopla. The six-part series only covers the first two novels, but you can expect the final adaption to come out in the near future now that the book has been released. I can say that I have heard this first-hand from Mark Rylance, who plays Cromwell in the series. I met him three years ago at a fundraiser for Rivers of Steel in Homestead. He was in Pittsburgh working on his now co-commissioned play “Steel.” He generously indulged my five minutes of fevered fan questioning of Mantel series-related news.
I recommend checking out The Guardian’s podcast interview with Hilary Mantel to hear this remarkable author talk about the creation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
In addition to PBS’ Wolf Hall, Hoopla has a generous offering of Tudor-related material in e-book, e-audio and video.