The Other Boleyn Girl
by Philippa Gregory
A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, 2003
[Challenge # 34: A book about a person you know little about.]
The Other Boleyn Girl isn’t the sort of book I usually read. But since I found a copy at one of the Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood, and had been on a minor Henry VIII kick at the time, I picked it up. The novel fit into one of the categories for this year’s reading challenge, so I gave it a go.
Phillipa Gregory has made a career of writing about the Tudor age and from the get-go her writing was smooth and easy to read. I learned a lot about the politics of the Tudor era and King Henry VIII and his courtiers, who were all continuously scheming to gain the favor of the King. Though mentioned only passingly in the book, Henry VII, his father, was the monarch who finally united England after a long period of civil wars. As my reading progressed it dawned on me that was why Henry VIII wanted a son so badly: he needed an heir and leader to ensure that England stayed united. The book makes it clear it was the only thing this powerful man could be manipulated with. I was aware it was a novel, an interpretation of the bones of history, and not fact… yet it all seemed very plausible.
I also learned Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was actually his older brother Arthur’s wife, and she was six years older than Henry, who was pushed to marry her after Arthur died at the age of 16. Pretty strange stuff.
Unlike some historical novels about political scheming, Gregory’s prose made it easy to follow for someone not versed in the era, choosing to convey the events of Anne Boleyn’s rise and fall through the narration of Mary Boleyn, her younger sister and “the other Boleyn girl” of the title. At the young age of 14 Mary is already in an arranged marriage but she catches the eye of Henry who is wont to seduce ladies of the court. She is pushed by her mother’s family, the powerful Howards, and tutored to fall into his arms. Her own husband realizes there’s little he can do; “You can’t say no to the King” was a common catchphrase of the book. Henry never realizes how completely he’s being played, which made the whole charade amusing to read, and then heartfelt, as Mary develops real emotions toward the young king.
But then she is then put into a bind, as she loves and respects Queen Catherine as well, whom she serves as lady-in-waiting. The author portrays this tension vividly, and it is fascinating, and heartbreaking, to see the Queen lose her status as the story goes on. This is Mary’s first experience with the hypocrisy of court life, and eventually it sours her on the King and sets her on her own path.
Though the blurbs on the book play up the rivalry and competition between Mary and Anne (“two sisters competing for the greatest prize: the heart of a king”) this was true for only a small part of the book. Mary, pregnant with the king’s son, can’t have sex with him, so scheming Uncle Howard, the closest the book comes to a true villain, pimps out her sister Anne to take up the slack, his reasoning being that it’s better to have a Howard girl on the King’s arm than one from a rival noble family like the Seymours. (Of course, history tells us how that turned out.)
As it becomes clear Queen Catherine is too old to produce the son Henry wants, the stakes rise. Mary has both a healthy son and daughter by the King, and though they are illegitimate, there’s a chance her son may be named as Henry’s heir. But then Henry decides to take a new wife, declaring his existing marriage invalid because of that messiness of Catherine’s being wed first to his older brother. And Anne aims for that role with a superhuman campaign of flirtation, cajoling, and intrigue.
I thought The Other Boleyn Girl would be one of those books I would read only once for the novelty of its twists and turns, and then pass on. But when I had finished, I did in fact want to keep it and reread it again one day. It was that immersive. There is a reason why popular books are popular, and why book clubs choose one book and not another: they’re easy to digest, but also make you think. The novel had the simplicity and timelessness of a fable. And fable it was: a human being’s rise to power, and then fall, through their own devices.
Make no mistake, Anne was the book’s protagonist, even though the title refers to Mary and Mary narrates. Anne is by turns a villainess and a victim. She is driven, charismatic, and expert at projecting false emotions and covering up her real ones. She set herself to snag the king and she did it, even resisting sex with him for ages in order to keep him intrigued. This was the only part the book lagged, the months where Henry waffles about divorcing the Queen as a war in France heats up and cools down. Anne runs herself ragged trying to charm him and keep him appeased. She is a bitch, yet one can’t help feeling sorry for her.
If the book has a fault it’s that the sister rivalry never comes across as believable. Anne throws more barbs at Mary than Mary does at Anne, and even in the ones Mary does throw, she comes across as too nice and restrained. She is, in the book’s first part, the nice girl who does as she’s told and doesn’t protest too much. But as Anne begins her fall Mary comes into her own character, a pawn no longer. She finds a new romance after her first husband dies of plague, and boy, was it fun to see how her new love reacts to all the skullduggery going on.
My other favorite characters were Mary’s and Jane’s brother George, a charming rake who may have been homosexual, and Queen Catherine, who never betrayed her dignity even as she was abused and discarded. Henry himself became less of a dupe as the plot went on, unwilling to put up with Anne’s shenanigans when she could not bear him a son either. He reacts with frightening expediency when he decides to move on, leaving Anne stranded in the dust and under arrest for treason. The other characters expect Anne will be divorced and exiled, but in a shocking turn to the characters (if not to the reader) she is executed along with George and many other members of the court. Mary has already positioned herself to make her own exile, to the country estate of her husband with her children, and the author implies she got the better deal out of life.
The Other Boleyn Girl is an epic book, yet surprisingly intimate and cozy. It has wit and banter, and also sheer horror. The descriptions of Anne’s miscarriages, one if which involved giving birth to a literal monster, made my skin crawl as well as any horror author’s.
Recommended. I give it four stars.