The Lady of the Tower imagines the life of Lucy St John, a descendant of Margaret Beauchamp (maternal grandmother of Henry VII), from 1603 as she emerges from girlhood to 1630 when she was wife of the Keeper of the Tower of London. With the death of Lucy’s mother five years earlier, the family has been dispersed, her sisters to various relatives and her brother John, after studying at Oxford, to Guernsey. Lucy lives at the Battersea manor of her uncle Oliver St John where she endures the dislike and daily cruelties of both her aunt and Lucy’s older sister Barbara, Aunt Joan’s favourite. Her only escape is the extensive garden and her interest in plants and their healing properties.
The family is brought back together for the marriage of Lucy’s brother to Anne Leighton at Lord Zouche’s substantial house at Hackney where she first encounters the glister of court life. With John’s marriage, the family home of Lydiard in Wiltshire is reopened and Lucy and Barbara move there, becoming neighbours to the Countess of Suffolk and falling into the orbit of Lady Suffolk’s children, Frances and Theophilus Howard. When Lucy attends court to see her brother knighted, she experiences to the fullest the superficial glitter and sumptuous display of court life. Barbara is in her element but Lucy is, in many ways, too honest to carefully navigate the politically and morally dangerous and decadent court of James I. Her missteps mean that she is regarded as damaged goods, most particularly by Aunt Joan and Barbara whose main concern is the effect it will have on her own prospects. Lucy seeks solitude and simplicity of life on Guernsey, at her sister-in-law’s family home, and meets a Calvinist refugee family who introduce her to a theology and piety that will carry her through the coming vagaries of life. Her marriage, finally, to Sir Alan Apsley lead, in the end, to her position as wife of the Keeper of the Tower of London where she has care, in part, of high-ranking political prisoners and where she uses her skills with physic and herbs to bring comfort where she can. These skills are a constant throughout Lucy’s life, drawn from knowledge and skills gained from teachers as varied as the Spanish wife the local minister at Battersea to Lord Zouche’s physician and overseeing gardener, Matthias l’Obel. Everywhere she lives, Lucy attempts to bring order and beauty through the gardens she creates that are both useful and a balm to her soul.
Lucy develops and matures through the novel. She is presented as intelligent and kind-hearted yet resourceful with an inner strength. Although, at times, Lucy resents the restrictions that her sex and position place on her, she is a woman of her time with the decisions of where and how she will live made by the men of her family. The reality of life for those at Lucy St John’s level of society is central to the novel – the jockeying for position; the rewards and costs, both personally and financially, of service to the crown; the danger to an entire family of a member falling out of favour with the king.
The narrative is presented in the first person from Lucy’s point of view. And despite the number of sisters and spouses and the multitude of courtiers, each character is distinctly drawn with a unique personality. The physical environment, from the lush gardens at Battersea, Lydiard and Hackney to the stark reality of the Tower of London, is vividly described in fluid prose. Each chapter begins with a letter relevant to that point in the narrative or an excerpt from a recipe book giving sense of the range of herbs and ailments a good wife would use in dealing with the health of those around her.
The Lady of the Tower is biographical fiction of the best sort, strongly rooted in the facts of Lucy St John’s life yet imagined in a way that puts living flesh on the bare bones of history. I would have liked an Author’s Note at the end of the novel which separated out the elements of imagination and fact, but that is merely a personal preference and lack of it does not detract in any way from the immersive experience of Lucy St John’s life.