Book Review – The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

Book Reviews, Tudors

Boleyn. That has always been associated with one person. Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII of England, the woman who informally caused the English Reformation. But there was another girl who left behind an almost unknown legacy. Anne’s sister, Mary.

Mary Boleyn – The Other Boleyn Girl – artist unknown

The Other Boleyn Girl.

Philippa Gregory’s bestselling novel tells the story of Mary Boleyn, who came to court of Henry VIII at the age of fourteen. She became just one of many ladies who shared his bed and became his lover. When his interests dithered, Mary is ordered by her demanding family to pass on her knowledge to Anne. Soon, Anne becomes the centre of everything and Mary finds herself pushed to the side. But Mary begins to find happiness outside the court with a man who encourages her to break free. But she’ll need to act fast because there is danger lurking nearby…

I was about 11 or 12 when I learned a little about Anne Boleyn, but knew nothing about her sister Mary until I was 15. In all honesty, that is not really surprising. With all the research and stories that have been written about Anne Boleyn, it’s easy to forget about her older sister Mary. She was the one that got away. The one that escaped the scaffold, the one who lived the rest of her life. away from the court of Henry VIII. She did not have to go through the same trials and tortures of her siblings, so it’s not surprising that Mary Boleyn usually goes unnoticed.

But in The Other Boleyn Girl, this is not the case. In this book, Mary is the main character, starting when she is a mere girl of thirteen. By then, she is already married to her first husband, William Carey and is at the court of Henry VIII. Her father and uncle, (the Duke of Norfolk) are determined to bring their family greatness and using Mary as their pawn, they order her to seduce the king and have his child. Mary, portrayed as a naive and foolish little girl, falls in love with Henry and eagerly follows his every word and is delighted to give birth to his children.

In contrast, the famous Anne Boleyn was portrayed as cold, deceitful, selfish woman, willing to go to any lengths to get her desires. Even so far as to take Mary’s son away, which was disturbing. In a way, the infamous woman was being portrayed in this book as a 16th century gold-digger.

Another thing I was shocked by was the sub-plot that Anne was having an affair with her own brother George. It went so far as for her to conceive her brother’s child so as to keep her throne- which ultimately failed. It is known that incest was one of the charges that Anne faced during her trial, but historians are convinced of her innocence of these charges. Many agree that the charges were used to convince the public that Anne Boleyn was a monster, I found it crazy that Philippa Gregory would use the idea that Anne was guilty of incest.

Anne boleyn.jpg
Anne Boleyn, Elizabethan portrait 1533-1536

From my own studies, I found that Anne Boleyn was not how she was portrayed in the novel. While it is true that she was headstrong, stubborn and didn’t know when to keep her temper, she was also intelligent, charming and kind-hearted to those she cared about. Unlike many women before her, Anne actually refused to become the King’s Mistress, refused to give in to his demands, until they were married. She was known not be popular with the people of England, due to Henry being legally married to Katherine of Aragon. But ultimately, she gave the people their most powerful ruler – Elizabeth I.

Philippa Gregory has said that Mary Boleyn is her favourite character, but she has used this in a negative manner. She has spent all of her time focusing on making Mary the hero of the story, that she has neglected to truly focus of history. While it is known that Mary was exiled from court after, it is also known that she never returned. Unlike in the novel, it is very unlikely that Mary was present at the execution of her sister and didn’t return to court after 1534. While it is known that her two elder children Catherine and Henry would rise to become well-known members of Queen Elizabeth’s court, Mary lived the rest of her life in obscurity until she died in 1543.

As a person who has always had an interest in Tudor history, I was interested to read this book. And while there were aspects of the story that I found enjoyable, overall I was slightly disappointed with The Other Boleyn Girl. It was interesting to learn more about Mary Boleyn, but for those who are interested in the Tudors, I would suggest looking elsewhere to read about the famous kings and queens of this era.

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