The Other Boleyn Girl

Most people know (or at least I hope they do; I consider it essential knowledge!) that Anne Boleyn was Henry VIII’s second wife and the mother of Elizabeth 1.  What many don’t know is that she had a sister, and before Anne was in Henry’s life, Anne’s sister Mary was the one in the spotlight and in Henry’s bed as his mistress.

Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl  tells the story of the Boleyn children–Anne, Mary and George–from 1521 until Anne’s execution in 1536 from Mary’s point of view.  Mary, though only 14, is already married when the novel opens but is forced to bow to her family’s ambition and begin an affair with the king when she catches his eye.  Anne, recently returned from France, does not like having to subordinate herself neither to her family’s ambition nor to her sister’s elevated status.  However, soon Anne catches the king’s eye, and the sisters’ roles are reversed as it is Mary who must now do what she can in support of Anne’s time in the spotlight.

I really liked this book.  It was a bit sensational in parts and incorporated some of the urban legends about Anne Boleyn (incest, witchcraft, etc.) and wasn’t completely faithful to history (e.g. Anne is the older sister in the book, but she was thought to be the younger in reality).  However, Gregory is a professor, and her command of the history and details of the period is very good and lends credibility to the novel that it may not otherwise have had.  Despite the sensationalism and occasional deliberate inaccuracies, I believe that Gregory has told the emotional truth of those events. 

Very little is known of Mary Boleyn, so Gregory had a bit of a blank canvas with her, but the character’s thoughts and motivations were very real.  She was by turns naive, stupid, and jealous, but I like that she rejected the poisonous court in order to take control of her life and finally carve out a life of her own after being her family’s pawn for so long.  I had always had a bit of a soft spot for Anne Boleyn because she is the mother of Elizabeth I, my favorite and the best monarch ever, but the way she was portrayed in the book made me dislike her a much of the time.  Even though I disliked her, I felt sorry for her.  It can’t have been easy to be a clever, educated woman in Tudor times when women were perceived as nothing more than possessions.  She was ambitious personally, yet she was also forced to be ambitious by her family.  It seemed like she was caught and as much of a victim as Mary was.  In some ways, I feel like she had to make the best of a bad situation, and she did, all the way to the throne of England. Gregory’s characterization of Anne was great.  In lesser hands, Anne could have come off as only a hateful schemer or a seductress, but Gregory made you feel sympathy for her.  Event when she was at her most awful, a shred of vulnerability would come through.  I also liked how the theme of the title was present throughout the book.  At various points both Mary and Anne were known simply as “the other Boleyn girl, ” an epithet that neither wanted. 

Anne’s story is the classic Icarus myth: she flew too high, too close to the sun and it burnt her, ultimately killing her. There’s also a bit of Phaeton’s hubris mixed in since she thought she could control the king, her family and her own destiny, but her ambition literally killed her. It’s interesting to juxtapose her fate with Mary’s, the sister who ultimate rejected ambition.

Good book.  I’m still thinking about over a week after I finished it.

Other recommendations: 

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2 Responses to The Other Boleyn Girl

  1. queensmartass says:

    Eek! Respectfully, I really urge you to do some research on both Henry VIII’s court and the Howard and Boleyn families. While the book was great fun to read, it was a VERY poor example of an attempt to tell this story.
    Mary Boleyn was nothing like she was portrayed in this book. NOTHING. How do we know? We know from contemporary descriptions of her, perhaps the most famous being King Francois’ declaration that she she was a hackney he rode many times, as had many others.
    The nauseating butchery of Anne Boleyn was just yet another of the many reasons most people who know anything about that era loathed this book intensely. Artistic license is one thing; what Gregory did to the Boleyn family is almost as disgusting as what Great Harry did to them.
    Gregory is a more than competent writer; she has the potential to be great, but needs to bone up on her research and stop insisting that her fictionalised accounts can stand up against historical scrutiny.
    You write an excellent review by the way; are you looking forward to The Other Queen?

  2. bibliophylia says:

    Queensmartass (awesome name BTW), you correctly point out that Gregory’s novel was in no way, shape or form historically accurate, and I apologize if my review wasn’t emphatic enough on that point. I have read lots of historically reputable non-fiction on that time, rest assured! What I admired about Gregory’s book was being able to put a “why” to the “what” even if the “why” wasn’t historically accurate. It was a fun book to read, and I have a soft spot for Anne. In many ways, I think her story is a very modern one.

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