REVIEW of The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory

I read my first Philippa Gregory a little less than a year ago. The title I chose was The Red Queen, the story of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. Those who read my post on this novel back in September will know that I found it underwhelming, to say the least. Checking in with other reviewers, however, I discovered that The Red Queen garnered a pretty poor reception everywhere–“Not Philippa Gregory’s best work,” seems to be the general consensus. And so, armed with that knowledge, I decided to give Gregory another try. This time I settled on The Other Boleyn Girl, one of her most popular novels. and prepared myself to reverse my opinion on Philippa Gregory if the occasion warranted.

The Other Boleyn Girl chronicles the story of Mary Boleyn and her siblings Anne and George. Although less well-known than her sister Anne, Mary was the first Boleyn to become the mistress of Henry VIII. Undeterred by the fact that she was already married, Mary’s family forced her to put aside her husband and receive the king’s advances. Mary becomes the king’s mistress at the young age of fourteen and bears him two children, one of them a son. This is something that Katherine, the aging queen, has failed to do. The Boleyns soon scheme to place Mary higher than mere mistress to the king. If Henry can be convinced to put his Spanish wife aside, perhaps Mary (with a male heir ready to hand) can replace her on the throne.

But while innocent, golden-haired Mary is in confinement after childbirth, Henry becomes enamored with her dark-eyed, calculating sister Anne. The two sisters have always felt an intense rivalry for each other, and now they are in competition for the heart of the king. Anne is filled with single-minded ambition, but Mary has other loves and duties pulling at her. She deeply respects the old queen Katherine and regrets the pain her own actions have caused her. She longs to provide a quiet life for her children away from the dangers of the court. And she comes to realize that Henry is much more of a selfish than a romantic figure, seeking only his own happiness whatever the cost to others.

With the blessing of the Boleyn family, Anne supplants Mary as Henry VIII’s favorite. Then follows a torturous period of several years wherein Henry VIII seeks a divorce from his first wife. The pope refuses to annul the marriage, and eventually, Henry declares himself head of the English church. Despite outcries from his people, he repudiates Katherine and installs his mistress Anne upon the throne of England. A few months later she bears the king a girl child, Elizabeth.

But Anne, in order to maintain the favor of the king, needs to bear a son. Henry’s growing impotence and her frequent miscarriages do not bode well for the Boleyn hopes of inheritance. Mary, whose dearest wish is to remain in the country with her children, is forced to stay at Anne’s side as her lady-in-waiting. When Henry grows weary of Anne’s temper and begins to amuse himself elsewhere, Anne “goes to hell and back” to conceive a male child, committing incest with her brother George. But she miscarries again, and the half-formed child is seen to be a monster, doubtless created by witchcraft.

Anne, George, and several of his associates are imprisoned on charges of adultery and witchcraft and beheaded for their crimes. Mary Boleyn, having found true love with a lowly landowner named William Stafford, retires to the country to raise her children and care for her dead sister’s daughter Elizabeth. The other Boleyn sister may have lost the bid for the crown, but in the end, she is the only one of her siblings to escape destruction.

The theme of this book is clearly rivalry between the two sisters. Nearly every chapter contains a dramatic showdown between them:

I turned to Anne who was sweetly silent, the smuggest of small smiles curving her lips. “It’s everything for you, isn’t it?” I said, shaken by the depth of my hatred. “You have to have everything, don’t you? You have the King of England at your beck and call and you have to have my son too. You’re like a cuckoo that eats all the other babes in the nest. How far do we all have to go for your ambition? You’ll be the death of us all, Anne.”

She turned her head away from the hatred on my face. “I have to be queen,” was all she said. “And you all have to help me. Your son Henry can play his part in the advancement of this family and we will help him upward, in return. You know that’s how it is, Mary. Only a fool rails against the way the dice fall.”

The book is 600+ pages, and with scenes like this repeated ad infinitum, it does get a little tedious. Anne is an extremely unlikeable character, much like Margaret Beaufort in The Red Queen. Gregory does try to make you feel sorry for her in the end, but it was too little too late, and I could not help rejoicing that she got the ax. Mary, the more sympathetic of the sisters, is still a trifle annoying. When she is not naively distraught over her family’s cold-hearted ambition, she is complaining about the rights of women in the sixteenth century.

“It’s still woman’s work whether it’s done in a great hall or in the kitchen,” I said bitterly. “I know it well enough. It’s earning no money for yourself and everything for your husband and master. It’s obeying him as quickly and as well as if you were a groom of the servery. It’s having to tolerate anything he chooses to do, and smile as he does it.”

Although the storyline is more captivating than that of The Red Queen (kind of like watching a train wreck, actually), The Other Boleyn Girl suffers from some of the same flatness of characters. The only subjects the novel deals with are power, sex, and succession–it is a little farfetched to assume that these would be the only things on the main characters’ minds. The religious controversies of the time period are virtually ignored. One reviewer of The Other Boleyn Girl writes:

[T]here is one huge dimension missing from it. I mean a sense of religion, religious turbulence, spiritual conviction and all the immense changes brought about in England by the Reformation. Anne Boleyn was in fact an early “Protestant” to use a modern word, a patron of Lutheran preachers who introduced Henry to certain reformed religious texts.

Besides one or two scant references to Anne reading Luther’s books, readers of The Other Boleyn Girl would have no idea that she was a major player in the religious/political stage of the 16th century.

Gregory reveals in her Author’s Note that she heavily relied on Retha Warnicke’s biography, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII. Many of Warnicke’s historical hypotheses, however, have been severely criticized by other historians for lacking any historical proof. There is no proof that Anne’s stillborn son was deformed (thus giving rise to the suspicion of witchcraft). There is no proof that George and his companions admitted to the accusation of incest/adultery with Anne (in order to avoid the greater stigma of “buggery”). There is contradicting evidence to Warnicke’s assertion that Mary was the younger of the two girls, with most timelines placing her as elder than both Anne and George.

Gregory’s own leaps do not stand up to historical scrutiny. Her portrayal of Mary as an innocent pawn in the hands of her family is sorely belied by historical allegations of a previous liaison between Mary and the French ruler Francis I. Her assertion that Mary’s first two children were fathered by Henry VIII does not mesh with the historical timeline of when Mary actually held the position of Henry’s mistress.

But none of this is news to anyone. The fact remains that The Other Boleyn Girl, despite its many historical inaccuracies, has definitely damaged the popular imagination when it comes to Henry VIII and his first two wives. It’s a dangerous thing to read a single novel and assume that you are now well-informed about those characters and that time period. HF can stand for Historical Fantasy as well as Historical Fiction.

2 Comments

  1. “It’s a dangerous thing to read a single novel and assume that you are now well-informed about those characters and that time period. HF can stand for Historical Fantasy as well as Historical Fiction.”

    Exactly what I thought as I was reading another historical novel recently (The Girl King). The lives of historical characters, however famous, do not automatically lend themselves to the rising-arc formula a novel demands, so authors sometimes seem to think it perfectly reasonable to twist and mangle even major facts to fit Cinderella’s shoe. It is one reason I wish the current historical fiction market would finally make room for purely fictional protagonists in a historical setting. (Which reminds me, thank you for your posts on the Falco series. They have been a great refresher course for me!)

    My copy of The Other Boleyn Girl has languished unread on my shelves for years; your evaluation has given it the coup de grâce.

    1. That’s a very good point — historical novelists might do better to actually use fictional characters than to radically fictionalize historical characters to fit the demands of their storyline. I know I feel uncomfortable adjusting known historical details or altering timelines when I’m working on my novels.

      Glad you’ve enjoyed the Falco posts — I’ve been enjoying that series immensely.

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