The Girl in the Glass Tower

Written by Elizabeth Fremantle
Review by Tracey Warr

Queen Elizabeth I is ageing and without an heir. Arbella Stuart, niece to Mary Queen of Scots, is first in line for the throne and being groomed for power by her severe grandmother, Bess of Hardwick. The only other possible contender for the English crown is the Scottish King James, Arbella’s cousin, and it seems certain that he, as a foreigner, will not inherit. However, amidst fears of Catholic plots, fortunes turn, and James becomes the new king, leaving Arbella as a perceived threat. From childhood she lives a suffocatingly confined life: a life entombed, without mate and without estate. Her only way to gain a sense of control of her own life is to starve herself.

Ami Lanyer is a poet, former mistress of a nobleman, and now down on her luck and trying to survive debt and guilt about her role in Arbella’s life. She also has to contend with accusations of witchcraft spread by her nosey, malicious neighbour. The two women’s stories twine around each other, slowly revealing Arbella’s fate and the cause of Ami’s guilt.

There are a few patches of heavy-handed exposition, but overall this is a beautifully written and intensely engaging story. Elizabeth Fremantle vividly conveys the sensory details of Arbella’s and Ami’s everyday contexts, such as, for example, the sound of Bess of Hardwick’s long string of pearls being poured from one hand to the other. This is the story of a woman silenced, of a struggle for freedom and love. It is quite an achievement to have made this good a story from such a stultifying life. Highly recommended.