The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

I had been meaning to read The Other Boleyn Girl for a few years now – I remember putting a lot of holds on it for patrons not long after I started working at the library, and it was in the back of my mind as “one I’d like to read at some point.” This year I’ve been making an effort not to avoid longer books, so I thought now was a good time to cowboy up and check it out.

The Other Boleyn Girl is from the perspective of Mary Boleyn, a mistress of Henry VIII and the sister of Henry’s second wife, Anne. Mary and Anne are part of the Howard family, who are seeking to improve their standing and who will stop at nothing to do it. At first this means using Mary to tempt Henry away from Catherine of Aragon, and then, when Mary does not prove ruthless enough to seal the deal, the family switches tactics and uses Anne instead. Anne, though, has a mind of her own, and as she ascends in power, refuses to simply do her family’s bidding.

It’s easy to get distracted, as I just did, by Anne’s story, because it’s hugely fascinating. Philippa Gregory has taken some liberties with the facts, expressing some highly speculative theories (a homosexual ring within Anne’s court, a possibly incestuous relationship between Anne and her brother George) as fact. According to Wikipedia, many historians were displeased with her portrayal of Anne, and some of the scholars whose resources she used have distanced themselves from the novel.

There I go again, getting distracted by Anne. This is Mary’s story, though – Mary, who was forced by her family to separate from her husband and become the king’s mistress, Mary, who, after giving the king two children was forced to make way for her sister and help her in her quest to become queen. And, ultimately, it’s Mary’s story of finding a life outside of court, which, the book implies, probably saved her from the witch hunt that ultimately cost Anne her life. (Was that a spoiler? hehe.)

This wasn’t a perfect book, but it was hugely entertaining, and kept my interest through almost 700 pages. I had thought perhaps it would be a good book club selection, but it’s simply too long. I am planning to read some of her other books, though, and if any of them are shorter, I can certainly see them being full of interesting topics to discuss. One of the things that struck me the most was that I had only thought of women of this time as pawns, but I saw Anne very capably acting in her own interests, and realized that her daughter Elizabeth later did the same, not just in the world of fiction.

I recommend this book with the caveat that perhaps it might be good to brush up on Anne and Mary Boleyn and Henry VIII before you read it, so you don’t get taken in by some of the more lurid plotlines. I’m certainly glad that I had done a little reading first, so I was able to keep a more balanced picture of Anne in my mind.

I read Alison Weir’s novel on Lady Jane Grey, and I think I’m going to try her biography The Six Wives of Henry VIII at some point this spring. It’s funny how one book leads to another, isn’t it?

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