Book Review: The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle

TheGirlintheGlassTowerAbout the Book

Publisher’s description: Hardwick Hall, sixteenth-century England. Formerly a beacon of wealth and power. Now a gilded prison. Hidden away, forgotten, one young woman seeks escape. But to do so she must trust those on the outside. Those who have their own motives…Discovery means death. But what choice has any woman trapped in a man’s world? Imprisoned by circumstance, Arbella Stuart is an unwilling contender for the throne. In a world where women are silenced, what chance does she have to take control of her destiny?

Format: Paperback Publisher: Michael Joseph Pages: 464
Publication: 25th July 2017 Genre: Historical Fiction    

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My Review

The Girl in the Glass Tower weaves together the stories of two women, drawing on historical fact about each of their lives, although in reality, as the author admits in her afterword, there is no evidence to say they ever met in the way imagined. However, this is historical fiction after all and I really liked the way the author made connections between the situations of the two women.

Aemilia Lanyer (referred to as Ami in the novel) was an English female poet who became mistress to Henry Hunsdon, first cousin of Elizabeth I. When she fell pregnant, she was married off to Alphonso Lanyer. We encounter Ami in this novel following Alphonso’s death, left in poverty to bring up her son, Henry.  Ami comes into possession of Arbella’s papers which include fragments of a memoir. [Although Arbella’s letters do still exist, the existence of a memoir is an invention of the author for the purposes of the novel.] Through reading Arbella’s words, Ami hopes to assuage the guilt she feels at having failed her friend. The reader will find out more about this towards the end of the book. Ami shares the same sense of expectation as the reader as she reads through the papers:

‘She can sense that her own story is about to intersect with Lady Arbella’s. The idea excites her, makes her wonder how she will be portrayed, whether she will recognize herself. Will she be there substantially, at the heart of the story, or as a ghost in the margins?’  

At the same time, Ami must struggle with the challenges of daily life as a widow without financial means. I found the depiction of Ami’s everyday life and her efforts to carve out a living really convincing and engaging. As a single woman, and one who is educated to boot, she attracts the suspicion of her neighbours at a time when accusations of witchcraft were rife.

Arbella’s journal reveals her life in a gilded cage, existing in an atmosphere of constant threat because of her royal blood and the ever present fear that she may be used as a figurehead for rebellion by competing political and religious factions.  Unknown to Arbella, those who would use her for their own objectives may be closer than she imagines – ‘invisible malign forces’.  Intelligent, educated and with a gift for writing, Arbella lacks control of her own destiny. Even a potential marriage would have political consequences so she must remain unmarried and unfulfilled. In the imagination of the author, Arbella seeks to exercise a degree of control over her life in the only way available to her.

As presented in the book, there are large gaps in Arbella’s journal covering periods of years. Ami seeks to fill those gaps and bring a resolution to Arbella’s story: ‘It is the story of a woman silenced and with her pen Ami will give her a voice.’

I’d come across references to Arbella Stuart when reading other historical fiction of the period but knew little about her so I very much enjoyed having some light shed on her sad and ultimately tragic life. Arbella Stuart joins the list of Tudor and Stuart women who suffered because of their position in the royal succession and the political machinations of others.   I enjoyed this book and will certainly seek out other books by Elizabeth Fremantle.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Michael Joseph, in return for an honest review.

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In three words: Dramatic, well-researched, historical

Try something similar…Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

ElizabethFremantleAbout the Author

Elizabeth writes: “As a child I was the one in the corner with my nose in a book who wanted to be a writer, but with the onset of a turbulent adolescence I left school, under a cloud, aged fifteen with nothing more than a fistful of O Levels and a hapless sense that things would somehow work themselves out. Eventually, after working in various dodgy dives – I’ve served grey scrambled eggs to squaddies at 5.30am; I’ve served vintage champagne to raucous hoorays; I’ve pulled pints for all and sundry – I managed to find myself, much in the way Forrest Gump always landed on his feet, working as a dogsbody on a fashion magazine. Over a decade, I worked for titles such as Vogue, Elle and The Sunday Times and contributed to many others. Marriage took me to Paris, a stint at French Vogue and the birth of my two gorgeous children but divorce saw me back home in London where I have happily remained. Fuelled by frustration with a fashion world that does no favours to women, I decided to complete my truncated education as a mature student which led, in a long and roundabout way with many frustrating impasses, to my fulfilling that childhood dream to become a novelist.”

Elizabeth has a first in English and an MA in creative writing from Birkbeck, University of London. She has contributed to various publications including The Sunday Times, Vogue, Vanity Fair, The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. She also reviews fiction for The Sunday Express

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