Bookmarks: the very long read to the Mantel of English greatness

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Bookmarks: the very long read to the Mantel of English greatness

A fortnightly look at books, writers and reviews

Andrew Donaldson

The concluding volume of Hilary Mantel’s magnificent Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light (Fourth Estate), is upon us, and so are the superlatives. The reviews have described the book as a dazzling masterpiece and, as I write, the BBC’s Andrew Marr has just described Mantel as the single most important novelist in modern Britain. Not just a novel about Tudor England, he gushes, but a book about the nature of political power itself. Ooo-er.

The novelist and critic Stephanie Merritt echoed the sentiment in her review for The Observer: “With this trilogy, Mantel has redefined what the historical novel is capable of; she has given it muscle and sinew, enlarged its scope, and created a prose style that is lyrical and colloquial, at once faithful to its time and entirely recognisable to us. Taken together, her Cromwell novels (2009’s Wolf Hall and 2012’s Bring Up the Bodies) are, for my money, the greatest English novels of this century.”

The Mirror and the Light is also, several critics have pointed out, among the longer English novels of this century, at 912 pages. We first meet her Thomas Cromwell, the English lawyer who served as Henry VIII’s chief minister from 1532 to 1540, as a teenage boy beaten and whipped by his father on the first page of Wolf Hall. It’s an incident that is alluded to, some 2,000 pages and 40 years later in the closing pages of the new novel when Cromwell is executed on Henry’s orders...

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