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Literary Glance: The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel

March 23, 2020

The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel starts off with Anne Boleyn getting beheaded.  That’s not a spoiler because it’s on the first page and it’s in the history books too.  Even though I’m from the United States, I have cable television, Netflix, and YouTube, and I think I’ve seen Anne Boleyn get her head chopped off several times.  British actresses seem to yearn to play royal historical figures who get beheaded.

Americans like reading British novels because they (the books) don’t need  to be translated.  Yeah, some of the British slang is different, but we Americans can usually figure it out.  French and Russian books (and books from most other countries too… I don’t want to leave anybody out) are okay, except they’re written in other languages and have to be translated.  Translations usually get messed up, so I (and other Americans) prefer reading British novels.

British historical novels are the best because they don’t have crazy slang, and members of British royalty are always getting their heads chopped off.   That’s one thing we don’t do in the United States.  We have our death penalty and high murder rates, but we don’t publicly decapitate our political prisoners.

When reading English historical fiction, it helps to not be knowledgeable about British history.  Most of my English history comes from the movies Braveheart and The Patriot (I’m kidding!), Bernard Cornwell books, and Princess Di documentaries that my wife watches (Meghan Markle is probably lucky that she’s still alive… but it’s still early).   The bad news is that I’m ignorant about British history; the good news is that the stories in British historical fiction will be fresh if I continue reading.

Anyway, The Mirror & The Light is the third book of a trilogy, and it’s probably pretty good because the first two novels were bestsellers and won a bunch of awards.  Now that the third book is completed, I can safely read the first two books.  I don’t read trilogies until they’re completed because I hate waiting for the next book.  Now I can read the entire trilogy, but should I?

Let’s start with the first page of The Mirror & The Light:

Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away.  A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner.  The morning’s circumstances are new and there are no rules to guide us.  The witnesses, who have knelt for the passing of the soul, stand up and put on their hats.  Under the hats, their faces are stunned.

NO!  Not the present-tense!  This scene specifically takes place in May, 1536.  This scene is time specific.  Present-tense works best (in my opinion) when the scene or story revolves around a human experience that is not time specific.  To me, this is a misuse of the present-tense.  But that might just be me, so as an experiment, I rewrote that first paragraph but put it in the past-tense.

Once the queen’s head was severed, he walked away.  A sharp pang of appetite reminded him that it was time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner.  The morning’s circumstances were new and there were no rules to guide them.  The witnesses, who had knelt for the passing of the soul, stood up and put on their hats.  Under the hats, their faces were stunned.

I don’t know.  Does the tense change matter all that much?  Maybe the present-tense makes things sound more urgent or dramatic, but it’s the principal that bothers me.  Maybe I’m just a tense snob.

I might read this trilogy.  It’s finished, and I’m unfamiliar enough with the time period for the story to be fresh.  But it’s written in the present-tense.  It’s a story from the 16th century written in the present-tense.  I don’t think I can read three books of a 16th century story written in the present-tense, even if the third book starts off with a beheading.


What do you think?  Should present-tense be used when writing historical fiction that takes place in the 16th century?  Will you read books in a trilogy before the trilogy is completed?

  1. Hmmm… interesting. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if you hadn’t pointed it out, but now that you have, and you’ve given us the past tense version, I think I do (mildly) prefer the past tense. However, I will definitely read this trilogy because I adore Tudor history! Thanks for the suggestion. Too bad the libraries are closed. 😦

    • AAAaaaarrrgh! My local library has had the first two books just sitting there for months/years, and now I can’t get to them. The present-tense bothers me, but it’s not as bad if I don’t spend my own money on the book.

  2. I have to confess that present tense is for me inseparably related to French-based porn, that had been first to use it. That’s why I won’t touch any novel written in present tense, historical or otherwise.

  3. I tried listening to her Cromwell series… Half-way through CD1, her lengthy descriptions of what Cromwell and his wife were thinking before falling asleep made me feel a complete idiot for spending money on the box of that garbadge. I am not a quitter, but Hillary Mantel turned out to be stronger than my resolve

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