I’ve read two books lately that both took place in and around the Tower of London. One was Wolf Hall, set in the mid-16th century. The other, which I just finished, was The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart.
I have already reviewed Wolf Hall, and want to share my thoughts on TZT, as I will call this book with the overly-lengthy title. But since they shared a common locale, I thought I might talk a little bit first about the Tower of London in general.
The official name of the Tower of London is Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress, and is located on Tower Hill, a spot directly on the North banks of the Thames, next to Tower Bridge (logically enough). The names represent the entire complex, from the outer walls inward,
though most people associate the name with the largest and most memorable of its buildings, the White Tower. The White Tower is technically a ‘keep’ and is one of the largest in the ‘Christian World’ :
When William the Conqueror won the battle at Hastings (1066 AD) and gained control over England, he wanted a tower to keep away the cursed English people, and to keep them from trying to win back their country. Actually, William made a lot of castles after he took over, but this is probably the most famous among them. He began to build the ToL at the SE corner of the walls remaining from the Roman establishment in Londinium. Estimates say the White Tower was finished around 1100 AD.
The tower was extended beyond the keep during the 12th century and was a point of contention when Prince John (of Robin Hood fame) tried to seize control of the country while Richard the Lionhearted was off fighting the crusades. Expansion continued during the 13th and 14th centuries, when disputes over succession to the crown or between the royalty and the aristocracy threatened the outbreak of civil war. Whomever held control of the crown wanted an impregnable fortress to hide behind. The tradition of whitewashing the White Tower (thus giving it its name) began in 1240. Periodically, the tower would be taken by the armies of barons or landed gentry, or given to clergymen. It was always an important strategic possession.
Obviously there was a fair amount of unpleasantness at the Tower. It was a military stronghold and a palatial lodging, but it was/became a prison. Edward I imprisoned at least 600 Jewish people in the tower, before exporting them out of the country entirely. Charming guy. Later, the tower was reserved for more important inmates — i.e. those accused of heresy or treason, not those accused of stealing bread. Often, the royalty themselves were imprisoned there. Examples include Richard II, Henry VI, and the two Princes–possibly its most famous residents because no one knows quite what happened to them.
In the 16th century, the tower stopped being used regularly as a royal residence and its focus shifted entirely to that of military stronghold and prison. The Yeoman Warders were formed in the early 1500s, and still wear the same uniform that existed during that time. This means an itchy wool fabric that cannot be remotely comfortable. But look how stylish:
The Yeoman Warders are traditionally called Beefeaters. This may be because a portion of meat was included with their meal rations. They still live in the Tower, with their families. To become a Beefeater, you must have been in the military with a good record for at least 22 years. It’s a lot to ask of someone who is essentially a tour guide. Must create a very unique microcosm of society within the tower. But its a far cry from what their original tasks included–chiefly torturing prisoners to extract confessions of heresy, treason, etc. They employed the Scavenger’s Daughter, the Rack, and the Manacles frequently.
The bloody history of the tower reached its peak in the 16th and 17th century. Beheading was popular at the tower because of its important clientele–for the measly peasants, hanging or burning were popular methods of acting out a death sentence. Those executed on the Tower Green were the most important and high profile of the doomed. These include: William Hastings, Anne Boleyn, Margaret Pole (hit 11 times with the axe before her head came off!), Jane Boleyn, Lady Jane Gray, and Robert Devereux. Most of these were directly related to threats/crimes against the current monarch. In addition to these Tower Green executions, there were numerous public executions (for the less important but equally guilty) on Tower Hill. These included William Wallace (of Braveheart fame), Thomas Cromwell (as featured in Wolf Hall), Guy Fawkes (tried to blow up Parliament) and Sir Walter Raleigh (imprisoned for over 10 years in the Tower before being executed). Ghosts of the two princes, Anne Boleyn, and Sir Walter Raleigh are the most commonly sighted in the Tower.
There were some less horrible things to find at the Tower. Isaac Newton ran the Royal Mint when it was located there. There was a royal menagerie in the middle ages where the king kept animals gifted to him by other royalty, including a Polar Bear said to have fished for his dinner in the Thames. It was first opened to very wealthy aristocrats for visiting, but became a bona fide tourist attraction by the end of the 19th century. Its last use as a prison was during WWII when a few Nazi PoWs were stationed inside. It’s a really cool place to visit if you know some of the history, or if you’re particularly keen to see the Crown Jewels.
If you’re a history buff or planning a visit, here is a link to the official website for more info. I always wanted to go to the Ceremony of the Keys, when they lock up the tower at night. The ceremony is about 450 years older than my country, so that’s pretty epic, but you have to plan/request tickets in advance and I never got my act together.
Okay, enough about the tower in general. What about this book? I learned a lot about the tower reading it. The Beefeaters live inside to this day! At first, I thought that seemed really awesome. But when you have Nazi graffiti in your study, or the ghost of Sir Walter Raleigh blowing up spectral science experiments and stealing your potatoes, and all you do all day is talk to impertinent tourists, it doesn’t seem so glamorous anymore.
Unfortunately, this book was just too light for me. Not that I need explosions or suicide in the books I read. I expected it to be light, and was looking forward to it after the epic task of Wolf Hall. Still, there has to be some emotional intensity to it. The characters were cute and likeable, but it was as if I was seeing all of them from a distance, or through a thick fog. Even when dealing with the heavy material, Julia Stuart seems afraid to commit to raw emotion. I felt at an arm’s length from the entire book, and that severely lessened my enjoyment. It didn’t go deep enough into the human psyche for me to feel much of anything. There were a few parts that made me mildly chuckle, but other than that it didn’t make a dent on me. Disappointing.
The story revolves around a beefeater named Balthazar Jones, who is asked to run the newly re-installed menagerie at the ToL. He is pretty under-qualified for the job (given to him only because he happens to own the world’s oldest tortoise) and the animal rights activist in me was a bit bothered by the idea of completely untrained people being in charge of these animals’ safety. But it is just a book, so I swallowed my objections. There isn’t much in the way of a traditional plot, except to have a few people in disarray and later have it all work into a happy ending.
There are a myriad of characters, most of which work in the ToL (Chief Yeoman Warder, Ravenmaster, etc.) and some that work in the lost property office for the Underground. Both of these locations are quirky and give a wonderful sense of color to the story, but again I’m troubled by the lack of depth.
Similar to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, this book revolves around a couple who have lost a child, and the way that child is lost is eventually revealed mid-way through the book. Unlike Harold Fry, this book doesn’t inspire a lot of emotion around this terrible event. I think Stuart wanted to keep the book light, so despite being vested in strong emotional events, it didn’t transmit much empathy to me–and I’m an incredibly empathetic person. That’s part of why I’m such a passionate reader. I feel everything the characters feel. Example–At least twice, I have taken a few moments to feel incredible sadness for Andromeda Black/Tonks from Harry Potter. If you think about it, she loses her husband and daughter and her son-in-law to Voldemort. All in the same year. Then she must raise her grandson on her own. None of this is ever overtly mentioned, but she must have a desperately difficult life in the days after the final battle.
Okay that was a digression, obviously, but the point is made. I am not lacking in empathy, but I didn’t feel much for these characters. Which not only meant that I didn’t experience the sorrows in media res, but I also missed out on the feeling of relief that comes with a happy ending. I’m sorry to say that even though I was looking for a light, frothy read, this book just lacked substance. Or it kept substance in the background, focusing instead on cutesy turns of phrase and quirky characters. Yet another reminder that in order to write quality fiction, you have to be incredibly brave. If you’re not scared to reveal what you’ve written down, then you haven’t dug deep enough.