REVIEW: The Other Boleyn Girl By Philippa Gregory
Dear Ms. Gregory,
Once 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.
The 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+