The Tower

Written by Flora Carr
Review by Douglas Kemp

A pregnant Mary Stuart, known usually as Queen of Scots, is taken to the isolated, bleak water-girt island of Lochleven Castle in the summer of 1567. Having just married the violent Bothwell after the murder of her favourite, Rizzio, Mary is forcibly imprisoned in the damp and gloomy tower, along with two chambermaids, Scottish Jane and the French Marie de Courcelles, known as Coucou, who split the greater part of the narrative focus. Along with Mary’s older friend Lady Seton (also Mary), they share the eleven months of incarceration in the tower of the castle.

This is a violent and cruel misogynist society, one where so many people behave despicably and selfishly in the evil maelstrom of royal and nobility politics in Scotland. But Mary is a charismatic figure; both men and women are drawn towards her as they would be to a siren. The historical context is superb, with research thorough and melded seamlessly into the narrative. This is historical fiction at its very best: literary, yet thoroughly absorbing. Flora Carr takes us into the very consciousness and mentality of the harsh 16th-century world and portrays it with immaculate understanding and perception from a feminist perspective. There is one error, when Mary sees a murmuration of starlings at sunrise and in the summer. Both times are exceedingly unlikely, as they occur at sunset and in the autumn or winter!