Places: The Tower of London

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1840

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical

Time of work: Sixteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Tower of London

*Tower Tower of London, Theof London. Historic castle on the River Thames is the principal setting of the novel. W. Harrison Ainsworth wrote The Tower of London as much for polemical purposes as for entertainment. He had, he noted, for many years hoped to make the setting the “groundwork for a Romance,” but he was also concerned by the neglect of the fabric of the buildings, their inaccessibility to the general public and also by the mutilation of the structure as a whole. Part of the book’s intention is to describe those parts of the Tower of London that were not open to the public at the time, hence the novel’s elaborate descriptions of individual buildings.

Another part of the novel’s intention, however, was to urge the authorities to take better care of the Tower of London. Ainsworth’s particular bugbear was the Grand Store House, constructed by William of Orange, which is mentioned several times in the novel, always unfavorably, and which fortuitously burned down while the novel was being written. The tripartite structure of Ainsworth’s novel was intended to mirror the complex’s triple purpose as palace, prison, and fortress, and the novel rarely moves outside the confines of the Tower. Whenever it does, the action is brief, and the exterior places are not described.

The narrative strand that focuses on Lady Jane Grey’s brief reign, after she is placed on the throne by her ambitious father-in-law, the duke of Northumberland, shows the Tower of London functioning as palace, with the business of the realm carried out in its public rooms and in private meetings. Jane is shown in her private apartments and visiting the chapel. Her movements within the building are invariably circumscribed by her rank and the need for her safety. Similarly, Mary, once she takes control of the government, turns the Tower into her palace, favoring it, albeit temporarily, over Whitehall.

Throughout Jane’s brief reign, the Tower is not only a palace but also a place of sanctuary. It is not made explicit at first, but the implication is that Jane is secure on her throne only so long as she remains within the Tower. Outside, her safety cannot be guaranteed, and her claim to rule the country is suspect. Mary and her followers naturally recognize this and it is vital to their interests that the Tower be taken. Thus, some of the most dramatic action in the novel involves the storming of the Tower by Mary’s followers and scenes of hand-to-hand fighting through its courts and greens. The Tower is most clearly seen to function as a fortress in the narrative strand that focuses on Mary’s accession to the throne.

Ainsworth’s most vivid description and storytelling, however, is reserved for the Tower as prison, and it is clear that it is this function that most grips his imagination. His novel’s third narrative strand involves a young squire, Cuthbert Cholmondeley, who has come to the Tower in the retinue of Lord Guilford Dudley, Jane Grey’s husband. By falling in love with the beautiful but mysterious young woman named Cicely, he incurs the wrath of the jailer Lawrence Nightgall, who also loves Cicely and intends to marry her, though she despises him. As jailer, Nightgall has access to all manner of hidden passages in the fabric of the Tower–whether these are real or imagined, Ainsworth does not say–and he imprisons first Cholmondeley and then Cicely, in secret rooms, hoping to kill the former and wed the latter. However, others are also aware of the Tower’s secret passages, which are variously used by courtiers plotting treason and by rescuers of Queen Jane. Indeed, given the passages’ alleged secrecy, the volume of traffic underground is perhaps the most remarkable part of the novel.

In his more sober moments, Ainsworth also paints a vivid and rather more accurate portrait of life for noble prisoners within the Tower. He depicts assorted lords and Queen Jane and Lady Elizabeth imprisoned in the Tower, in reasonable comfort, with frequent descriptions of the rooms being prepared for them, but also less important prisoners lodging with various members of the Tower community in their own homes.

BibliographyEllis, S. M. William Harrison Ainsworth and His Friends. 2 vols. London: John Lane, 1911. Although dated, this is the only complete biography of the author. Based on original correspondence and recollections, it includes a detailed discussion of the sources used for The Tower of London.Fleishman, Avrom. The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971. This study sees Ainsworth as a mass producer of historical fiction. Fleishman judges the novel to be filled with grotesque characters, antiquarian digressions, and sentimental emotions.Sanders, Andrew. The Victorian Historical Novel, 1840-1880. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. Sanders devotes a chapter of this comprehensive study to a harsh evaluation of The Tower of London. He argues that the novel is overcrowded with characters, abrupt in its transitions from scene to scene, intellectually slight, and too sensationalistic.Sutherland, J. A. Victorian Novelists and Publishers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. This is a well-written, thoughtful, and detailed examination of how business relationships between novelists and publishers affected the shape of novels in the Victorian era. Sutherland explains why The Tower of London was one of Ainsworth’s most popular novels, although he points out its formulaic qualities.Worth, George J. William Harrison Ainsworth. New York: Twayne, 1972. In this, the only book-length critical study of Ainsworth’s career, Worth argues that the novel’s focus on the setting (the complex of buildings that makes up the Tower of London) rather than on the plot and the characters, is a departure from Ainsworth’s more typical novels. For Worth, this approach is interesting, creative, and challenging to received notions about plot.
Categories: Places