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REVIEW: The Other Boleyn Girl By Philippa Gregory

Dear Ms. Gregory,

Book CoverOnce again we get to see the adroit tight-rope walking that it took to live in the Tudor court. While it’s more history than romance, the story of Anne Boleyn’s sister (the first Boleyn girl in Henry’s bed) is definitely fascinating. It could also be titled “Life in the Snake and Scorpion Pit.” Those courtiers would have sold their souls to advance at court. It makes me goggle at the amount of energy, creativeness and effort a whole group of people expended to keep one man amused.

You take the bare facts that are known about Mary’s life and use them to tell the family’s hard slog to the top of the food chain of Tudor England. And it’s equally sharp drop from favor when Anne couldn’t give the king what he craved most in life, a son to succeed him.

Mary comes across as a sometimes not too bright, sometimes selfish, sometimes devoted sister who was willing to do what her family told her in order to advance their power. I got frustrated with her for allowing herself to be kept from her children but then who knows what she really felt? She could have felt as her mother was portrayed as being, cold and willing to use her offspring as pawns. Or she could have truly agonized at their separations from each other. You mention that Mary was sent away from her family at the age of four. Just amazing to think about. I kept trying to put myself in her slippers and see life from the point of view of what was accepted for their class. It was probably better for her children to have been at Hever than at court. Much healthier anyway. I was also surprised at how recently the Boleyn family had jumped into a position of prominence in the country. Really, rather upstarts.

other-boleyn-girl.jpgThe book presents some interesting “what ifs” and “perhaps” in telling Mary’s story. What was the relationship between the two sisters? Rivals or coconspirators? And what really went on with their brother George? Was he a sodomite or just bored with the empty courtly flattery towards the Queen’s ladies? Was Anne really the bitch/whore/sorceress of history or a woman desperately trying to maintain her footing in the slippery new world she had helped create when good Queen Katherine was ousted?

I thought William was a great character. Poor guy got stuck with a lot of the Boleyn dirty work but he and Mary did seem to have a loving relationship which truly was a rarity in those days among their class. I also noted that he remarried after Mary’s death and had several children. The endnotes list them as having a long and loving life together but actually, in modern terms, Mary appears to have died fairly young, in her late thirties. I guess long for that age but still…at least she didn’t die by the axe! I do wish that you could have somehow told more of the story about Anne once she was arrested and in the tower but I guess having Mary’s daughter Catherine there was the best she could do with a first person POV book.

I would love to know the ins and outs about Henry’s promise to let Anne retire to a nunnery if she signed the annulment papers, then changing his mind. Was he ever serious about this or was it just a ruse to get his way and he always intended Anne to die? It’s really amazing that she stayed in control of him and their relationship for as long as she did. If only she’d have had a son, she could have shimmied naked down the halls of Hampton Court Palace and he’d not have care. Much.

After finishing the book, I spent some time rereading “The Wives of Henry VIII” by Antonia Frasier and her take is that the trial was staged to produce a guilty verdict and that Anne was doomed from the start. Which makes sense when you consider that Katherine of Aragon had finally died a few short months before and why would Henry want another ex wife hanging around and mucking up the scene. Frasier feels than any thoughts of a nunnery or exile were merely the products of Anne’s hysterical mood swings before the trial.

She goes on to list the final resting places for all the wives and mentions that Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard are buried (or were reburied) close to Tower Green where they were beheaded. The Beefeaters who show visitors around are of the opinion that Anne was most probably innocent of the adultery charges while Katherine was probably guilty.

I do know I’d rather lie down with a pack of hungry hyennas or clasp a pit viper to my chest than rely on any of those people to stand by me in a crisis. B+

~Jayne

This book can be purchased in mass market, trade paperback or ebook format.

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

12 Comments

  1. Marg
    Nov 15, 2007 @ 04:49:28

    Have you seen the new cover that is coming out to coincide with the movie? This one is much nicer, and seemingly started a trend in historical fiction covers at least!

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  2. Jayne
    Nov 15, 2007 @ 05:47:31

    Okay Marg, just for you I’ll put the mmp cover up as well. I actually like the trade cover a little better (plus it’s the one I own) but the green cover is pretty nice too.

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  3. heather (errantdreams)
    Nov 15, 2007 @ 06:00:44

    Oooh, the green cover is quite pretty. Sounds like this book is one helluva ride!

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  4. December Quinn/Stacia Kane
    Nov 15, 2007 @ 09:05:42

    Yes, seeing Anne’s flagstone in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula is always a bit sad…the poor woman. (And if you want to have real fun with the Yeoman Warders, let them know you’re a Ricardian–they love that and will pick on you mercilessly for the rest of the tour, lol.)

    I actually found that ambiguity irritating in this book, which I otherwise liked. Gregory seemed to be implying that Anne was in fact guilty of witchcraft and adultery with her brother, and I wondered why she took that view when so many people think it was a set-up. It wouldn’t have bothered me if she’d included an Author’s Note, but as she didn’t I just couldn’t get past it and it ruined the book for me.

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  5. Jill Myles
    Nov 15, 2007 @ 09:54:50

    I really loved this book. I’m not a big fan of the Tudor era because it all seems dark and grim, but I thoroughly enjoyed this particular telling. I’ve read several other novels of hers and found them equally enthralling, but I think this one was my favorite.

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  6. Tumperkin
    Nov 15, 2007 @ 14:46:25

    I really liked the fact that it was implied Anne may have dabbled in wicthcraft and adultery. She is usually portrayed as a completely innocent victim and I liked that Gregory was prepared to consider her to be more designing than that. Also, if she had dabbled, it was in a desperate attempt to get pregnant. She knew perfectly well that her failure to produce an heir for the King was making her position exceedingly grim.

    There was actually a British TV production of this a couple of years ago starring Natasha McElhone (Syriana) as Mary and Johdi May (who was also in Tipping the Velvet) as Anne.

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  7. Lynne Connolly
    Nov 15, 2007 @ 19:47:28

    The book actually plays a bit fast and loose with history, so you really have to take it on its own terms.
    Anne was a forward thinker, and she subscribed to the new Humanist thinking, introduced it to the English court. At first Henry was fascinated. No she wasn’t a witch, that was seen as very old-fashioned and backwards, primitive thinking. I can’t think of anyone less likely to be a witch than Anne Boleyn.
    But if Gregory wants to create her own version with a different view, that’s her privilege. Just don’t confuse it with the real thing!
    Next they’ll be telling us that Henry VIII was a short, dark Irishman who went around yelling all the time (Alexander Korda has a lot to apologise for!)

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  8. Keishon
    Nov 16, 2007 @ 01:19:32

    The book actually plays a bit fast and loose with history, so you really have to take it on its own terms.

    One doesn’t have to look very hard to find out that Ms. Gregory did in fact make some claims that are unsupported or controversial. I am reading this book right now as apart of my TBR challenge for this month. This is indeed a novel of historical fiction and not based entirely of historical facts. More like claims. However, Gregory does have a style that flows.

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  9. L.E. Bryce
    Nov 16, 2007 @ 12:33:59

    The book also plays hard and loose with its facts.

    Mary was actually the eldest of the Boleyn children, when in the novel she is portrayed as the youngest.

    Mary did not marry William Carey until after her affair with Henry had ended; Catherine and Henry were born then, and were certainly not Henry VIII’s children by her. The novel has her already married to William when the king takes an interest in her.

    Mary had spent time in the French court and had been the mistress of the French king before being recalled to England by her family, who was shocked by the reputation she’d acquired. She certainly wasn’t the sexual innocent she is portrayed as in the book.

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  10. Nichole
    May 12, 2011 @ 08:08:50

    I am reading the book right now and agree that this is more of a fiction novel than a historical novel. As others have suggested Anne wasn’t as cold as she is portrayed her. Mary didn’t have the king’s children. The list goes on. While this is a good read, I was hoping to find a read that was more historically accurate. Mary was an opportunist, just like Anne. While the author is entitled to her opinion, I found this book extremely bias.

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  11. bethsharp
    Jan 12, 2012 @ 14:16:50

    I homeschool a 14 year old daughter. Is this book to expilict for that age as i’d lvoe her to read this as we are studying this time period.

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  12. Jayne
    Jan 12, 2012 @ 16:21:25

    @bethsharp: Had I read it when I was 14, I would have been a little shocked but that was nearly 30 years ago and times – and what will shock people – have changed. There are some themes – which appear to be iffy historically speaking – such as incest that are raised. I would advise you to skim/read the book first before letting your daughter read it. But then sometimes I think I’m rapidly headed to old fuddy-duddy sensibilities.

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