The Tower of London is a historical novel in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott, yet the author’s unique approach to his historical material makes the book stand apart from other novels of the genre. William Harrison Ainsworth makes the Tower itself the protagonist of the story. He was quite explicit about this point, stating that his goal in The Tower of London was to write about incidents that would illuminate every corner of the edifice or, in his words, “naturally introduce every relic of the old pile.” Unlike a story that deals with a period in the life of a human being or with the unfolding of character development, The Tower of London centers on a phase in the history of a complex of buildings. If the reader is willing to accept this premise, he or she must be content to see action and character subordinate to setting and to some preconceived notions concerning plot.
The Tower functions not only as the historical backdrop for the incidents in the novel and the stage on which the action takes place but also as the major structural device of the book. Indeed, the Tower is so thoroughly integrated with the other materials of the novel that it becomes a vital participant in the action and provides the novel’s unity by acting as a focal point around which all other elements are organized. The novel has a clearly defined beginning in Lady Jane Grey Dudley’s arrival at the Tower on July 10, 1553, and an equally definite end: her execution on Tower Green on February 10, 1559. In between the two events, much of the major action of the book takes place in the Tower’s chapels, halls, chambers, and gateways.
The novel can be viewed as two distinct parts joined together by the Tower. During the first half of the book, Lady Jane, the queen for barely a month, is supported in her tenuous claim to the throne by her father-in-law, the duke of Northumberland, and by her husband, Lord Dudley. She is plotted against, however, by those who wish to put Mary on the throne. In the second part, Mary is queen, but she, too, is the object of conspiracies by the champions of both Elizabeth and the deposed Jane. At the novel’s conclusion, Lady Jane has been beheaded, Elizabeth is in protective custody, and Mary is committed to a Spanish marriage that pleases no one. All that survives unimpaired is the Tower, having been the scene of yet one more series of events in its long history.
Although one might at first suspect that Lady Jane is the heroine of the novel, given that it chronicles her stay in the Tower, this is not the case. Mary Tudor and her half sister, Elizabeth, play larger roles. Nevertheless, it is obviously the Tower itself that dominates this novel, and the book’s best writing is found in the passages describing the structure. Ainsworth spaces his descriptions judiciously throughout in such a way as to heighten their effects. The only apparent exception to this general descriptive practice occurs in the second book, as Ainsworth digresses for more than a dozen...
(The entire section is 1238 words.)