A novel about one of the lesser known Stuarts of the 16th century.
‘Memories are like that cracked pane of glass with its subtle distortions.’
Lady Arbella Stuart is ‘The Girl in the Glass Tower’ and I picked up this book with interest: Lady Arbella Stuart had always been a shadowy figure in my reading about Tudor/Stuart history. I knew that she had been considered as a possible successor to Elizabeth I, and when I first came across her name I was convinced it had been misspelled. But I knew little about her.
First, some biography. Lady Arbella Stuart was the only child of Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox and his wife Elizabeth Cavendish. She was a grandchild of Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox and Lady Margaret Douglas, whose parents were Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus and Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII of England and widow of James IV of Scotland. In short, Arbella Stuart was the great-great- granddaughter of Henry VII, and was in line to the English throne. While it seems that she did not seek the throne herself, there were others keen to push her claims. Her grandmother, Elizabeth Cavendish, better known as ‘Bess of Hardwick’ was key.
In this novel, Elizabeth Fremantle brings Arbella Stuart out of the shadows. Arbella’s story is told in the past tense, in conjunction with the story of another historical figure, Aemilia Lanyer (Ami) a writer and poet whose story is told in the present. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition: Ami’s story moving back in time as Arbella’s story moves forward. The gaps in one story are filled in the other. Arbella spends much of her time with her grandmother, effectively imprisoned behind the imposing glass windows of Hardwick Hall. She is being kept safe: there is much danger in the world for those with royal blood. And living within this glasshouse, unable to take control over many aspects of her life, Arbella wishes to ride her horse Dorcas, and longs to be free.
‘You may not be Queen of England but you are queen over the realm of your body.’
The historical facts can be found readily for those in search of them, having all of the detail before reading the novel may well spoil the experience for some readers. Arbella wanted to marry, but because of her place in the succession neither Elizabeth I nor James I would agree. There were offers made for her, but they came to nothing. As Arbella grew older, she sought to control her life by controlling her body.
In this novel, her one last chance for happiness was thwarted. Ami Lanyer is part of this and, while aspects are wholly fictional, it provides an interesting dimension to Arbella’s story.
I finished this novel feeling like I had some greater sense of Arbella Stuart, but also wanting to know more about Aemilia Lanyer. I was left with a small question, though: were containers really called cartons in late 16th and early 17th century England?
Note: My thanks to Michael Joseph and NetGalley for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.