As in her other novels and in much of popular historical fiction, Alison explores the position of women in times of threat and oppression: women who are married off or discarded at will, women who are expected to breed or not breed as the politics of the time demands, women who are expected to be passive even when treated cruelly and unjustly, women who are victims of dynastic struggle.
The launch was held in a gorgeous room in the New Armouries building of the Tower and it was extremely well attended: Alison clearly has legions of loyal fans. She talked fascinatingly about the research she's done for the novel and of her view of the two main characters, interspersing this with readings. Kate Plantagenet is the more obscure, less-documented character. The benefit of this is that Alison has had more scope to imagine what she was like and what actions she might have taken, whereas Katherine Grey's life is much more fully recorded. Clearly Alison sympathises with both, but with perhaps a slight note of impatience towards Katherine Grey, who probably wasn't the brightest of bunnies compared with her formidably learned sister. What does create enormous sympathy, though, is how young these girls were when dreadful events overtook them. This reminded me of the unfortunate Katherine Howard, Henry VIII's fifth wife, whose air-headedness brought her to the block. In another era, she'd have just been yet another giggling girl, with her fads and fancies and promiscuity, and eventually she'd have grown up and settled down - only she wasn't given the chance.
Afterwards, I took the opportunity to stroll around the Tower site. Scroll down to view some of the photos I took: I was particularly struck by how the views blended ancient and modern - a plane heading for Heathrow passing by the weathervanes on the White Tower, Tower Bridge in the background with the giant Olympic rings hanging from it, the very striking glass sculpture etched with the names of those who were beheaded on Tower Green, the sign inviting us to visit Torture at the Tower, the gleaming pyramid of the Shard seen beyond the half-timbered house where Guy Fawkes was questioned. Everything neat, manicured, signposted for tourists, and yet chilling. That tidy lawn saw executions. That tower saw imprisonment of despairing souls. That gate on the water let in those who would never depart. It's a fantastic tourist attraction - but we should all feel more than a delicious shiver at the thought of the past's dark deeds. The raven himself was hoarse that flapped down past me to land on the Information booth ...
|Arch under the Bloody Tower|