The Girl in the Glass Tower is the fourth novel from acclaimed historical fiction author Elizabeth Fremantle and continues her exploration of, in her words, ‘the invisibility of early modern women’s lives’ with perhaps her most challenging character. Lady Arbella Stuart was the great-granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor and niece to Mary Queen of Scots. More significantly she was, for a time, considered as a potential heir to Elizabeth I: a simple twist of family that threw a long, inescapable shadow across Arbella’s relatively short life.
Lady Arbella was a prolific letter-writer and Fremantle has researched these thoroughly to provide a backbone to her story. However, for most of her life, Arbella was kept in obscurity under the control of her grandmother Bess of Hardwick, side-lined from the political and dynastic events unfurling far away from her. In the hands of a less capable writer, this could result in a story which seems to happen elsewhere: there are no such concerns here. Fremantle uses Arbella’s lack of control over her own life to create a desperately believable character whose yearning for freedom is a heart-breaking motif throughout the novel. Visits to the vibrant and often decadent Court, where the rules of behaviour imposed on her by Bess make Arbella an outsider and continue her separation from the world, contrast effectively with the arid realities of Arbella’s daily life and deepen the reader’s sympathy for the girl’s narrowed existence. It is, however, the addition of a second narrator which really makes the novel sing.
In alternate chapters, Fremantle introduces us to another woman who has slipped too much into obscurity: Aemilia Lanyer, the first English woman who could be counted as a professional poet. Through this second voice, Freemantle gives us a glimpse into the wider constraints facing women in the early seventeenth century, including the increasing threat of witchcraft charges against any woman who appeared to be outside the rules of conventional behaviour. For both Aemilia and Arbella, the spectre of unfounded charges and imprisonment or worse is never far away. The women’s stories are more parallel than inter-twined but they come together in a plausible, well-imagined way and Fremantle makes the reader care equally for both their fates.
Lady Arbella’s life was lived in the shadows and her death was quiet in its tragedy. Her life was precarious through no fault of her own and the way she was forced to live it gave her no armour against the people who sought to use her. The manner in which she attempts to impose control over the only thing she owns, her body, is realistically drawn and carries its echoes down the centuries. Elizabeth Fremantle has successfully taken a quiet life and given us a real breathing woman at the centre of a world far too complex for her to exist in. It is beautifully written, completely engrossing and a book that stays after the pages are closed. Highly recommended.
Catherine Hokin is a Glasgow-based author with a degree in History from Manchester University. Her debut novel, Blood and Roses, was published in 2016. She regularly blogs as Heroine Chic, casting a historical, and often hysterical, eye over women in history and popular culture.