One of the things I like about Elizabeth Fremantle’s historical novels is that they deal with women whose stories aren’t told very often: Penelope Devereux in Watch the Lady, Katherine and Mary Grey in Sisters of Treason and Katherine Parr in Queen’s Gambit. In this, her fourth novel, she writes about two more – Arbella Stuart and Aemilia Lanyer.
The Girl in the Glass Tower is set towards the end of the Elizabethan period, with England waiting anxiously for Elizabeth I, growing old with no children of her own, to name her heir. Born in 1575, Lady Arbella Stuart is the granddaughter of Margaret Douglas, Henry VIII’s niece, and therefore a possible claimant to the throne. Her other grandmother, the formidable and ambitious Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, is determined to make this possibility a reality – and so Arbella grows up in isolation at Hardwick Hall, sheltered and protected from those who might try to plot against her.
Being close to the throne, however, doesn’t bring Arbella happiness and when her cousin, James VI of Scotland, is finally named as Elizabeth’s successor, she feels that her whole life has been wasted waiting for something that now looks unlikely to happen. Sadly, though, there is still more trouble ahead and when she makes the decision to marry William Seymour, who himself has Tudor blood, Arbella finds herself imprisoned again, this time in the Tower of London.
Arbella’s story alternates with the story of the poet Aemilia Lanyer, author of the poetry collection Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. Aemilia (whom I have read about previously in Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly) is sometimes considered to have been the ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but this theory is not the focus of this novel, which concentrates on other aspects of Aemilia’s life instead: how she coped financially after the end of her affair with her rich lover, Lord Hunsdon, and the death of her husband, Alfonso; her work as a poet and as a teacher; and her relationship with her son, Henry.
For both women’s stories, Elizabeth Fremantle sticks to the known historical facts as far as possible, but where details are not known – particularly where Aemilia is concerned – she takes the opportunity to use her imagination. There is no evidence that the two women were friends, for example (although they would probably have been at court at the same time and Aemilia did dedicate one of her poems to Arbella), but Fremantle imagines that they were and that their lives became closely linked.
I loved following Arbella’s story – I’d only read about her once before, in Maureen Peters’ The Queenmaker, which is written from Bess of Hardwick’s perspective, so it was interesting to see things from another point of view, with Bess almost as a villain, controlling and manipulating her granddaughter’s life. I found Aemilia’s sections of the book slightly less absorbing, maybe because I didn’t like the device Fremantle uses of having Aemilia looking back on her relationship with Arbella from a point several years into the future. Still, I thought her story worked well alongside Arbella’s and provided an interesting contrast; unlike Arbella, whose destiny is always in the hands of other people, Aemilia has a much greater degree of freedom, her own struggle being mainly for financial independence and the respect of her son.
I also appreciated the way Fremantle pulls aspects of her previous novels together in this one – Penelope Devereux, the Earl of Essex’s sister from Watch the Lady, has a role to play, and the memory of Katherine Grey from Sisters of Treason is a strong presence in Arbella’s life. The Girl in the Glass Tower is a sad novel, but one that I enjoyed reading – and now I’m wondering who Elizabeth Fremantle will choose to write about next.