What does it take to restore the dead and their world to the land of the living, to rescue them from the silence of the tomb? That task of strenuous reanimation faces all writers of the past — historians as well as novelists — for without imaginative alchemy, all arguments and analyses lie inert. The challenge of historical re-creation is daunting because, as all those who have tried it recognise, vanished worlds are at one and the same time tantalisingly familiar and irrecoverably alien.

In The Mirror and the Light, the majestic and often breathtakingly poetic conclusion to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Hilary Mantel has been astute enough to deal with this double-nature of the past by making it her great theme. The Reformation was the point at which, ostensibly, an ancient universe of magical belief was brushed aside by the imperatives of the modernising state: brutally pragmatic dynastic politics serviced by omniscient bureaucracy and rubber-stamped by obliging parliaments.<...

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