Julia Stuart seems to not only approve of, but endorse and exploit, all the standard stereotypes of the English, especially eccentricity as a national trait. There’s no one in her novel of life in the Tower of London complex who’s allowed to be a normal person. And since we’re not allowed to know the characters as people, it’s too hard to care about them, too hard to identify with them.
Stuart’s love of detail, especially the charmingly English details such as how many sets of dentures may languish in the Lost Properties Office of the London Underground, adds another layer of distance between readers and characters. Stuart forces us as readers to join the ranks of “horrid tourists” who are the Beefeaters’ reason for serving at the Tower and the bane of their existence.
At first glance, the novel had everything to offer me, an anglophile, a fan of zoos, and particularly a lover of tortoises. My book club was looking for a pleasanter, lighter read after some challenges and with the holidays upon us. At second glance, as the quaintness was just starting to pile up, it seemed to also be an historical novel. Maybe the details and eccentricities were just a method of characterization. Then a character made reference to events from 2001, and I began to wince. The layers of detail and eccentricity became so thick I couldn’t even attempt to keep them straight. I began to focus on just getting through for the sake of the book club. And I hadn’t yet encountered anything about a zoo, so maybe there was some hope.
The zoo actually was the last straw for me. The entire premise of the Queen – unnamed, but the time has been set, so she might as well be – in the 21st century, decreeing that the Royal Menagerie of living gifts from other heads of state should be shifted from the skilled care of the Zoological Society of London to makeshift quarters in the ancient buildings of the Tower and the happenstance care of Yeoman Warder Balthazar Jones is offensive to the entire culture of modern zookeeping, just for starters.
Page iv of the book, the copyright/colophon, carries the “work of fiction” disclaimer that characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents “either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.” But page ix, the first page of information in the book, mimics scholarly “Acknowledgments” about the “numerous guidebooks for sale at the Tower of London” and two named books. The Funeral Effigies of Westminster Abbey is explicitly exonerated of one “flight of fancy” exhibit given attention in the novel. But The Tower Menagerie: The Amazing True Story of the Royal Collection of Wild Beasts is simply cited. Stuart makes no mention that the latter book was published in 2004, or that the Tower Menagerie of which it tells the amazing true story “closes its doors for the last time,” [page 239] in 1835. The Royal Menagerie of King William the IV had been moved to the three-year-old Zoo in 1831 [p. 234].
Then there’s the tortoise, Mrs. Cook. Being a title character, one might hope to learn a bit about tortoises. But Mrs. Cook wanders in and out, by the count of the Amazon “search inside” feature, making only 19 appearances in 304 pages, and some of those merely evidentiary. No one seems to care when she hasn’t been seen in weeks. No one goes looking for her. She’s just another quaint detail to decorate her author’s whimsy.
There is a story running throughout the novel, but it has nothing to do with any of the items in the title. Like Mrs. Cook, Balthazar and Hebe Jones’s grief simply pops up again here and there, like another insignificant detail of the characters’ lives. If we want to care about these feelings, we are frustrated by the way a loss with the power to ruin one of the great loves of literature has so little impact on any other aspect of the characters’ lives, and how little it seems to interest even its author. As it is to Balthazar’s callous colleagues, it seems to be only an incomprehensible nuisance to Julia Stuart.
Like unfaced grief and loss in real life, however, what Stuart merely touches on pulls the whole merry tale down with it. Not only are Balthazar and Hebe separated by it, we readers – at least if my book club is a sample with any reliability – are so wounded by this wraith that the many quaint details become obstacles to our finding out about the one human emotion in the novel. We are not as fortunate as Balthazar and Hebe, to be distractable by life in the Tower, the improbabilities of the zoo, or even the unfulfilled possibilities of the tortoise. We are left with nothing but sadness as we walk away from the book. Like a life ended too early, it’s a promise unfulfilled, except in this case we know where to direct our unhappiness.