Book review: The Tower, by Flora Carr

This debut novel telling the story of the incarceration of Mary, Queen of Scots in Lochleven Castle, is both accomplished and engaging, writes Allan Massie

The months Queen Mary spent as a prisoner in Lochleven Castle were surely the most miserable and frightening of her life. She was taken there, pregnant, riding at speed, after surrendering to the rebel lords at Carberry Hill when her third husband, Bothwell, fled north. Carried to Edinburgh where she was abused by a crowd (followers of her half-brother James, Earl of Moray) she was transferred to Lochleven where she was bullied and threatened with being “cut in collops” by the rebel lords who guarded her – as brutal a gang of cutthroats as you can conceive. She miscarried twin boys (Bothwell’s children) and was then compelled to abdicate in favour of her son, James VI, only a year old. She herself was only 25. It is probable she owed her survival to her cousin Elizabeth of England’s influence. Certainly, Moray and the gang of well-born brutes, several of whom had been among the murderers of David Rizzio in her presence, would have been happy to dispose of their Queen.

The Tower, Flora Carr’s first novel, tells the grim story of Mary’s incarceration in the island castle and is a very good one despite being written in the tiresome present tense, so often ill-suited to narrative. Much of it is seen through the eyes of Mary’s maids, Jane who would remain with her to her horrible but noble death at Fotheringay Castle more than 20 years later, and a Frenchwoman known as Cuckoo. Much of the time we are offered their point of view, though Carr sensibly departs from this when convenient, especially in Mary’s long conversation with her half-brother Moray, now named as Regent of Scotland. Moray, known by Protestant Reformers – and by too many historians – as “the Good Lord James” was less of a brutal scoundrel than his confederates, but that’s the best that can be said of him. Carr treats him fairly, but without sympathy. He had been an English pensioner for years and had led a rebellion against Mary, ineptly.

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The Tower is of course a historical novel and one faithful to historical fact, but it is history viewed from a 21st century angle, being also a feminist novel, describing a man’s world in which women, even those of royal or noble birth, are inferior beings, victims if they are seen as week. Mary indeed was raped by Bothwell, who forced marriage on her but returned to bed his divorced wife a few days later.

Other women feature in the novel: Margaret Erskine, once James V’s mistress and Moray’s mother, another of her sons being William Douglas, current Keeper of the Castle, and his wife Agnew, talkative and silly, as close to a comic character as is imaginable in this grim story.

Most Scottish readers – probably few English ones – will know that Mary’s health improved to the point where she could contemplate escape and even attempt to rally her friends and seek to recover her throne; they will probably know who helped her and many will recall the boat-boy, Will, who made it possible and whose loyalty to the Queen would endure to the end of her life. Carr handles all this well enough to satisfy readers who already know the story of the Queen’s daring escape and please, even thrill, those ignorant of it.

In short, Carr has written a novel which is faithful to what was – and, one hopes, still is – a well-known episode in the history of Mary’s troubled reign. Others have written of it before, Nigel Tranter, as I recall, among them. What makes this novel distinctive is Carr’s feminist rendering of the horrible early months of the Queen’s confinement, and her portrayal of the two maidservants whose care for her contributed to Mary’s recovery. Yet, of course, the Queen’s escape from Lochleven was made possible by the courage and enterprise of Margaret Erskine, younger son George Douglas – who may even have aspired to become the Queen’s fourth husband – and of course the boat-boy Will. Their enterprise makes for a briefly happy ending to this accomplished and engaging novel.

The Tower, by Flora Carr, Hutchison Heinemann, £16.99

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