The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle

the-girl-in-the-glass-tower 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.

Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly

Dark Aemilia Dark Aemilia is a fictional account of the life of Aemilia Lanyer, one of several women whose names have been suggested as possible candidates for the ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets. She was also one of the first women in England to have a book of poetry published.

Born Aemilia Bassano, the illegitimate daughter of a Venetian musician at the court of Elizabeth I, Aemilia becomes the mistress of the much older nobleman Lord Hunsdon. When she discovers that she is pregnant, she is forced to leave court and is married off to another court musician, Alfonso Lanyer. However, the father of her child (according to Sally O’Reilly) is probably not Hunsdon, but a young playwright by the name of William Shakespeare.

Aemilia first meets Shakespeare at a performance of The Taming of the Shrew where she confronts him over his negative portrayal of women in the play. Not the best of starts to their relationship, but a brief affair follows – despite the fact that Shakespeare is already married. Aemilia finds a kindred spirit in William, a man who shares her love of poetry, literature and the theatre, before their affair comes to an end after a misunderstanding. Aemilia resigns herself to life away from court with Alfonso Lanyer and her beloved baby boy, Henry, but she is reunited with Shakespeare during an outbreak of plague in London. And when Henry becomes seriously ill, Aemilia is prepared to do anything to save his life.

My feelings about Dark Aemilia are very mixed. I would like to be able to say that I loved it, but that wouldn’t be true; in fact I came very close to abandoning it several times during the first half of the book. I felt that I was reading about nothing but Aemilia’s love affairs and at the risk of sounding like a prude, I thought the language was unnecessarily vulgar. I don’t always have a problem with that sort of thing, but in this case I didn’t feel that it was adding anything to the story. I kept reading, though, and somewhere in the middle of the book I found that I was finally being drawn in. The language remained bold and lively (and appropriate to the Elizabethan setting) but not as explicit as it was earlier on in the novel and the plot moved away from Aemilia’s love life to focus on other storylines.

As Sally O’Reilly states in her author’s note, the real Aemilia would not have been a feminist in the modern sense of the word, but her surviving poetry (such as the poem Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women) shows that she felt strongly about the roles of men and women. The fictional Aemilia speaks up on behalf of the female sex whenever she can, challenging the views of the men around her. As an intelligent and talented woman, she doesn’t have the opportunities that would have been open to her if she had lived today and she finds it very difficult to gain any recognition for her work. This leads to an interesting interpretation of the question of who actually wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare – there’s no evidence that Aemilia had any involvement in them, but Sally O’Reilly’s theories work in the context of this novel.

Aemilia is a fascinating character and I was left wanting to know more about the real woman. William Shakespeare, though, is not really shown in a very good light and the portrayal of his romance with Aemilia didn’t feel completely convincing to me. They didn’t actually have many scenes together and when they did meet I didn’t sense much love or passion between the two of them – not until very near the end. There were other characters in the book who interested me more than Shakespeare did; I was particularly intrigued by Simon Forman, the astrologer who was said to have cured himself of the plague. And this is where I need to mention another aspect of Dark Aemilia: black magic and the occult. I won’t spoil the story by telling you exactly how this is woven into the plot, but I think this will be something you’ll either love or hate!

While I did have my problems with Dark Aemilia, in the end my lasting impression of the book is of the wonderfully vivid portrayal of Elizabethan England. The writing is very atmospheric and there are some great descriptions of dark, dirty streets, crowded marketplaces, the sights and sounds of the Globe Theatre, the frozen River Thames in winter and a London ravaged by plague. I’m pleased I persevered and followed Aemilia’s story through to the end and I would happily read more books by Sally O’Reilly.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for review.