The Other Boleyn Girl
by Philippa Gregory
Who doesn’t love a retelling?
While this one isn’t a fairy tale, as is all the current biblio-rage, it is a clever and gripping twist on a popular historic subject. The Tudor family and their shenanigans have fascinated people for centuries, drawing crowds to visit the Tower of London where they held residence or sending viewers to their television sets to watch series and movies depicting a certain famous monarch and his equally famous eight wives or a queen pushing her people into a golden age. From their ways of enacting bloody revenge and the cruelty in which the monarchs during this era shamelessly settled into their many schemes and cunning plots, there has never been any lack of drama to be found when delving into the Tudor’s place in England’s history. Theirs was a monarchy that was, in terms of actual monarchs, moderate in length – there were only five – but it was a dynasty from which some of the most famous names in history came forth – Henry VIII, Ann Boleyn, “Bloody” Mary, Katherine of Aragon, Robert Dudley and of course, the incomparable Queen Elizabeth 1.
British author Philippa Gregory is a master at the craft of history retellings. She has a way of taking famous events in the past and manipulating them into decadent love stories while raising the female characters to a new height and unraveling mysteries. In a world that was dominated by the male sex and where history books tend to favor only the man’s accomplishments, Gregory empowers their female counterparts through her words, making their stories and sacrifices as important as their husband’s . . . or lover’s – if not more important.
She has chronicled the Tudor dynasty through a series of books, beginning with the conception of the family line and even pushing it further back to the infamous War of the Roses. I have personally always found history tomes to be tedious and a bit too meaty for my taste. I get lost in endless amounts of dates and Roman numerals stacking up behind people’s names, causing me to quickly lose interest. Philippa Gregory changed it all for me. She weaves actual facts and history together with a captivating fictional story that is saturated with the bad behavior, tawdry romance, and crazy scheming that was very much all the rage in that particular part of time. Once I pick a Gregory book up I have a hard time putting it back down, and it all started for me with The Other Boleyn Girl.
Mary Boleyn has always suffered to live in her sister’s shadow. Born to be rivals, the two have flirted with the dangers at both the French and English courts for the entirety of their existence, cultivating their feminine prowess and beguiling temperaments. But as pawns to the scheming plots of their parents and extended family as they strive to rise in the ranks and in favor of the King, the sisters have no real freedoms to speak of – they are trapped in a court wrought with combustion and complications.
When it is suggested that Mary become friendly with the handsome and charismatic King Henry, she finds in it an opportunity to finally best her older sister, Anne. Mary looks forward to attention being placed upon her and takes her task to heart. While Anne has always been the more daring, the more ambitious, and shown to be the excessively cunning half of the duo, Mary is viewed to be soft and kind, almost virginal – despite the rumors coming out of France. Surely she would appeal to the King, his tastes in women leans in that direction and his attentions towards Queen Catherine have cooled as her attempts to become pregnant with a son are proving fruitless. Having Mary as the King’s mistress would raise her family in station and in notoriety while earning them the respect they believe they are due, and they are willing to put her forth as a lamb to a slaughter.
Under the sharp tutelage of her older sister Anne and brother George, her deviant uncle and her unapologetic parents, Mary sets out to gain the eye and attention of King Henry – regardless of the fact that she is in fact already married to one of his courtiers. Against her better judgment and attempts to steel herself, Mary finds herself emotionally attracted to the charming king, and when she become pregnant with his child, she is hopeful that their relationship will deepen into something more permanent. But behind the scenes, her wily sister Anne is putting her own measures in place, jockeying herself into the position of Henry’s most prized confidant and supporter. Mary watches in dismay and a quiet sense of awe as Anne eventually wins a place by Henry’s side as Queen, unseating the revered Catherine of Aragon in a revolutionary and risky tactic that brings scandal upon the house.
But with her place in history now transitioning from the King’s mistress to the Queen’s sister, Mary struggles. She watches in silence and horror as her sister makes wrong move after wrong move, dragging their brother into the mix and performing heinous acts of treachery and sin, all in an effort to overcome her paranoia and keep her place in Henry’s life. For a family who were once so high and full of pleasure, the Howard/Boleyn brood will fall into despair and destruction, paying the ultimate price for selling your soul for power.
The Other Boleyn Girl is a tale of love and tragedy, all wrapped up in the guise of family and duty. Perfectly capturing the sibling rivalry and claustrophobic feel of a court constantly on the brink of change and disaster, Gregory portrays the sisters as both dark and light, kind and cruel, despairing and elated. Anne did indeed get what she wanted in the end, but it came with a price; and while Mary set out initially believing that she wanted one thing, she found something entirely different awaiting her on the other side. The story is both gripping and heart-wrenching, and at times like watching an ingeniously executed car accident in slow motion.
Though historians have their own say on the accuracy of the novel, readers are well to remember that this is a work of fiction. The shell is settled in truth and fact while the insides are grown by classic storytelling and exaggeration. I was pulled in almost immediately, fascinated by the bird’s eye view of one of the most famous women in English history. I give this novel 5 out of 5 stars, and recommend that readers who enjoy it also pick up the books listed below.
I have listed them in chronological order, which is my preferred way to read series. Each book that Gregory has written is considered a stand-alone, but I really enjoyed going back and reading these in historically dated order. It helps to build the characters when you see where they came from and who they are related to.
The Cousins War (War of the Roses/Plantagenet into Tudor)
- The Lady of the Rivers (story of Jaquetta of Luxembourg, mother to Elizabeth Woodville)
- The White Queen (story of Elizabeth Woodville, queen consort to King Edward IV)
- The Red Queen (story of Margaret Beaufort, mother to King Henry VII of the Tudor dynasty)
- The Kingmaker’s Daughter (story of Anne Neville, wife of King Richard III who was King Edward IV’s brother)
- The White Princess (story of Elizabeth Woodville and King Edward IV’s daughter, who married King Henry VII and gave birth to King Henry VIII)
- The Constant Princess (story of Catherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII’s first wife)
- The King’s Curse (story of Margaret Pole, niece of Anne Neville)
- Three Sisters, Three Queens (stories of Margaret Tudor, Mary Tudor, and Catherine of Aragon who became queens of England, Scotland, and France)
- The Other Boleyn Girl (story of Mary and Anne Boleyn and their affairs and subsequent marriage with Henry VIII)
- The Boleyn Inheritance (story of King Henry VIII’s other wives; Anne of Cleaves, Katherine Howard, and Jane Boleyn)
- The Taming of the Queen (story of King Henry VIII’s last wife, Catherine Parr)
- The Queen’s Fool (story of King Henry VIII’s daughters, Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth, told through the perspective of a Jewish girl)
- The Virgin’s Lover (story of Queen Elizabeth I in the early part of her reign)
- The Last Tudor (story of Lady Jane Grey and her two sisters)
- The Other Queen (story of Mary Stuart, the Queen of Scots)