This delightful novel covers a year in the life of the Leigh family, from the arrival on May Day 1565 of Faithful Crocker, a 14 year old orphaned vagabond, carrying his meagre possessions, a copy of Virgil and of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and a burning desire to become a scholar, to the visit of Queen Elizabeth I to Oxford in August 1566. Widowed four years, Gervas Leigh is Canon of Christ Church and has a vibrant household which includes Joyeuse, his eldest daughter now responsible for running the household, sixteen years old, dutiful and loving but with barely acknowledged dreams of a more exciting life; her younger sister Grace, a born housewife itching to take control of the house but who is still seen as a child; Giles, the eldest son and a brilliant scholar; his two younger brothers, Will and Thomas; the twins, Meg and Joan; Diccon the baby of the family, unlike his siblings in every way, four years old and full of mischief; plus cats and dogs and servants and, finally, the imperious and irascible great-aunt, Dame Susan Cholmeley. Faithful is welcomed into the household and becomes Giles servant, attending lectures with him and rubbing shoulders with his friends, the thoughtful poet, Philip Sidney, and the ebullient Walter Raleigh.
Elizabethan daily life is brought to life in detail. Oxford and the surrounding countryside are lovingly described and the Leighs’ tale often detours into the history of the town and the university. The prose is lyrical and story told with both a gentle humour and deep insights into the human condition. In many ways it is a coming of age story as the two elder Leigh daughters and Faithful take on adult responsibilities, developing into the people they will be as adults, and experiencing love for the first time. My only quibble is the final section which details Queen Elizabeth’s visit. I wanted to hear more of Faithful and the Leighs, although their lives are rounded off by this point — I cared more for them than Queen Elizabeth and her entertainments.
Towers in the Mist is a pleasant respite from gritty realism, a step back into a gentler age. There are sorrows in the story, moments of violence and glimpses of squalor but they are only lightly touched upon. In effect, it is a fairy tale about Elizabethan Oxford, the literary equivalent of John Thomson’s illustrations of Shakespeare.
A detailed review can be found here.