Written by Philippa Gregory
Published by Simon & Schuster
Review by Marian Kensler
The dictum that the past is another country is never better demonstrated than when trying to write a historical novel. The author may be overwhelmed with information on some aspects of their chosen era, but the answers to many key questions will be simply a blank space with a few speculations scribbled under it. The story of Anne Boleyn has many of these frustrating gaps. She was one of the ultimate catalysts of the English Reformation, and as such is an intrinsically interesting figure. Yet her day-to-day personality is murky, and nobody can know for certain such basic facts as when she was born, how many children she gave birth to, or whether she committed any of the crimes for which she was executed.
The Other Boleyn Girl is an attempt to fill in these spaces in Anne’s life and several others, and is told from the perspective of Mary Boleyn – Anne’s sister and an even more shadowy figure than Anne herself. Like Anne, her life is filled with question marks. Mary was Henry VIII’s mistress for an unknown amount of time, and there has been speculation that her two children may also have been his. She, like Anne, lived at the French court when young, but opinions vary as to her position there (though the French King’s nickname for her – “The English Mare” – suggests a few possibilities). Her birthdate is unknown, her personality a blank. Philippa Gregory has a lot of gaps to fill in telling the story of these two sisters, and has been forced in many instances to make choices between competing theories; for example, she makes Mary the younger sister, although there are many who argue that she was actually the elder, and similarly posits late birthdates for both sisters – around 1506 and 1507, meaning among other things that Mary ends up being married at the age of twelve. In the matter of Anne’s relationship with Lord Percy, she decides that they were actually briefly married, which is one of several equally plausible possibilities. Similarly, she chooses to believe the accusations that Anne was guilty of murder, and also that she commited incest with her brother George. Many of these choices are the less likely of the possibilities, but all added together they make for a very colorful plot, if one built on a somewhat shaky foundation.
The novel opens with the fourteen-year-old Anne arriving back from France, where she had been maid of honour to the French Queen. Anne is now an expert in flirtation and seduction (learned entirely through observation) and on the lookout for a noble husband. Mary is thirteen, and newly married to William Carey, a solid if unspectacular courtier. Their elder brother George Boleyn is as ambitious as Anne, although he already has the handicap of an unpleasant, albeit wealthy, wife. The entire family is thrilled when King Henry starts to flirt with Mary (who is also lady-in-waiting to Katharine of Aragon). With visions of land grants and pensions in their heads, they hasten her away from her husband and into the King’s bed. She doesn’t sleep much there, nor does anyone else seem to take a breather throughout the rest of the book. George and Anne are busy clawing their way over the heads of their rival family, the Seymours, while Mary has two children by the King, loses William Carey to sweating sickness, loses the King to the predatorial Anne, eventually falls in love with and marries a low-ranking man, and goes off to the country to live in happy and somewhat impoverished obscurity. Anne, meanwhile, falls in love with Lord Henry Percy, a future Duke, and marries him in secret. However, when his family discovers this, they are furious that Percy has thrown himself away on her and appeal to Cardinal Wolsey, who intercedes to annul the marriage. Anne, now made bitter and heartless by the separation from Percy, begins to play up the King while Mary is out of the area. Eventually she convinces him that he should really be married to her, as she – unlike Katharine – can bear sons, and machinates to get Cardinal Wolsey disgraced when the divorce from Katharine doesn’t come through quickly enough. Finally Henry and Anne are married, and Anne gives birth to Elizabeth, presides over the executions of several of her opponents and the poisonings of a few others, and has several miscarriages, the last of which is of an incestuous child fathered by her brother George. In the end, having failed to bear a living son, Anne is accused of witchcraft, adultery and treason and executed along with George and several others.
Mary can do very little but observe throughout most of this story, but even so she is oddly cowlike. While she sounds like a pleasant enough person, she barely seems to have a real character, and unlike the others she does not seem like someone at home in the sixteenth century. Instead, the author has filled her with a quiver of modern sensibilities and made her into the stand-in for a twenty-first century reader. Thus, Mary becomes the King’s mistress – but she is excused of any mercenary intent by being made to actually fall in love with the King. She is portrayed as understanding that family loyalty comes first, and yet when family loyalty causes her to betray Katharine of Aragon several times over, Mary is absolved of even the slightest amount of self-interest and made to do it solely because she fears her male relatives. She is shown balking at the idea of a wetnurse (at which coldhearted Anne tells her that it’s unnatural to get attached to a baby, since it will probably die anyway), and scorning the idea that a baby boy is better than a baby girl. All of these feelings are laudable, but it is unlikely that a sixteenth-century noblewoman would embrace any of them. This is not to say that Mary would not love her children, or that she would not be as fond of her daughter as of her son, but rather that for her, such things as praying for a boy rather than for a girl, or turning her baby over to a wetnurse, would be so ingrained that she probably would not question them any more than she questioned the colour of the sky.
However, The Other Boleyn Girl has many good aspects which counter these and which make it very worth the read. It is written clearly and convincingly, except for occasional annoying lapses into non-period speech (Mary refers to Anne’s “sexy little laugh” which is unlikely, and George Boleyn occasionally prefaces his declarations with “I say” which is more Henty than Henry). The enormous cast of characters is easy to keep distinguished, and the personalities of the minor characters are interesting; they are real people, not just props to push the plot along. The story moves along at a good pace, despite the fact that the book could handle another editing; for example, there are at least seven references to Anne’s necklace with the pearl pendant of the letter B; one or two references would surely be enough to satisfy those who remember that pendant from Anne’s portrait. Many of the shorter scenes are excellently done – Anne’s demands for Katharine’s christening gown and jewels, the midnight conferences between the three Boleyn siblings (Gregory does a very good job of showing how little privacy anyone had then, no matter what their rank), and of course the constant calculations and plottings against other families. Henry is well-sketched; his combination of volatile temper, impulsiveness, and need for approval could have come straight from a documentary (less so perhaps the “kissable rosebud mouth” which Mary brashly and anachronistically refers to). Katharine of Aragon, above all, is strong – one thing Gregory emphasizes, with her descriptions of Katharine’s life and routines, is how much stamina she must have had to draw on just to get through the exhausting court life every year, let alone when Henry turned against her. George Boleyn comes across as a very believable older brother – protective of his sisters, but always with one eye open for the main chance.
Anne, unfortunately, is not likeable at any point, but since we’re seeing her through the eyes of her upstaged younger sister, this is not implausible. But it makes it difficult to see why she ever appealed to anyone, and the implication that Anne was turned vicious after her loss of Lord Percy isn’t very easy to believe, since she is shown as being just as cold and nasty before the Percy separation as after it. Jane Parker, George’s malicious wife, is altogether too easy to believe in. Jane Seymour, unfortunately, is a cardboard cutout; smug, pretend-pious, devoid of any redeeming feature such as uncertainty, love, or fear – one at least of which she must certainly have experienced. But Jane is only a bit player in this novel, so that fault can be overlooked.
Altogether, despite the twenty-first-century perspective that creeps in, this book is well worth picking up. It has a good sense of time and place, despite the weak narrator, and if the incest, love affairs, and secret homosexual rings are perhaps a little too operatic to be all believable at once, they still make for a story which is hard to put down. You will not get the most solid history with The Other Boleyn Girl but you will get a pleasant weekend with a painless side-helping of history thrown in.
Marian Kensler is a freelance writer living in Chicago. She is currently working on a novel.