14 June 2016
Hardwick Hall

'Splendid and curiously monolithic, those famous windows reflecting back the sky': Elizabethan mansion Hardwick Hall

Hardwick is approached from below; the road winds round through a valley with a tantalising vista opening up, offering a glimpse of golden stone looming above, and then disappearing once more as you climb. Still invisible on the long drive through parkland scattered with sheep, Hardwick only reappears when you are almost upon her (she, glinting in the low sun, is surely female). Then there she is, splendid and curiously monolithic, those famous windows reflecting back the sky, and you wonder how it was possible for her to hide so easily behind the curves of the Derbyshire countryside.

Research trips can be like pilgrimages and that first sight of Hardwick brought with it a frisson of excitement in the knowledge that my latest heroine, Arbella Stuart, had spent much of her youth behind those very walls. But I challenge anyone approaching the place, for even the most mundane of reasons, to not feel charged with anticipation on the first sight of this house.

Lest we forget the woman who brought Hardwick into being, by sheer hubris and social mountaineering, the six square towers are topped with carvings spelling out ES for Elizabeth Shrewsbury, more commonly known as Bess of Hardwick, the illustrious Shrewsbury title having these days taken second place to Bess as a figure of success in her own right. An intriguing woman born into the minor gentry she was widowed four times, cannily amassing vast wealth and the means to build prodigy houses to demonstrate her position.

Hardwick Hall

One of the first impressions for me on entering the vast rooms was the fresh, summer harvest smell of the rush matting, an evocative scent that returns Arbella to Hardwick in her mind throughout the novel.

Hardwick sits perched surveying the rolling hills of Derbyshire and it is easy to imagine Bess looking out and feeling as if she owned the entire world, indeed this is exactly how I have shown her in The Girl in the Glass Tower. Hardwick truly gives a sense of Bess’s ambition and it was this ambition that led to her cleverly negotiating the marriage of her daughter to a Scottish prince that produced Arbella, a girl who was for many years the presumed heir to Elizabeth I.

Bess’s driving aspirations, which are so apparent in the splendid architecture of Hardwick, make her, for the purposes of my novel, something of an anti-heroine. She is a kind of wicked queen figure, responsible for the incarceration of my protagonist and so what is for Bess a palace, is for Arbella a gilded prison.

I set a number of scenes in the staterooms at the top of the house. The long gallery is the longest in England and I used this to create a sense of social separation, particularly when the Queen’s agent comes to question Arbella and Bess sets out to intimidate him with the splendour of her surroundings. One of the first impressions for me on entering the vast rooms was the fresh, summer harvest smell of the rush matting, an evocative scent that returns Arbella to Hardwick in her mind throughout the novel.

Bess’s legendary windows, which provoked a visitor to say, ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall,’ provided my central metaphorical theme of glass and, of course, led to the title of my novel. They offer magnificent views of the rolling Derbyshire countryside but they are a constant reminder to Arbella of her loss of freedom. And glass broken is deadly sharp and when powdered, one of my characters believes, it is a powerful poison. But most poignantly, those expanses of glass represent an intrinsic and lethal fragility in my heroine.

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