The Other Boleyn Girl (2003) by Philippa Gregory tells the tale of two sisters and their rivalry for the love of the King. One sister uses beauty to land into the king’s bed while the other sister uses her ambition and virtue to become the Queen of England. Of course all of this would have been no more of a footnote in history if Katherine of Aragon could have bore Henry a son. However, Gregory tells quite a story about the Tudor court. The lies, the scheming, the treachery mixed with a wallop of gossip, sex and scandal makes for some good reading!
King Henry VIII, King of England and Ireland, believes that his throne is unstable without an heir. He desperately needs a son and his wife of twenty years, Katherine of Aragon, is now barren. The Boleyn and Howard family play on the King’s discontent with his wife and immediately begin their plotting and scheming against their political rivals, the Seymour’s, to play the King for favor in the further advancement of the family title, lands and wealth. Most of the Howard family ambition and ruthless political scheming is led by the Earl Marshal, Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk. I do mean this man was relentless in his political scheming and purportedly had spies all over the country so it wasn’t very much that he missed. Also, he gave Henry two wives from the Howard family tree.
The Boleyn girls, Anne and Mary, are sisters who while not close, they are devoted to each other and to the political advancement of the Howard family. It’s amazing how they put aside personal differences when there was a crisis in the family. Educated in the French court, the girls enjoyed the benefits from being a Howard and enjoying favor from the King. Their relationship is one that is hard to adequately describe for me. They are portrayed as being loyal to each other but secretly they are enemies slash rivals. Each have different aspirations and goals. Mary prefers to be a simple farmer’s wife (her second marriage banishes her from court) while her sister Anne plotted to be Queen of England and give Henry a son (but bore him a daughter instead, Elizabeth Tudor). Mary is portrayed as someone who often did as she was told and somewhat slow on uptake when it came to politics while her sister Anne was smart and relentless in seeking further advancement of the Howard family.
Court life seen through Mary’s eyes seemed quite seedy and treacherous. She had to work hard to keep one man amused and her family appeased. Being the first pawn to the King’s bed, her family enjoys the fruits of her labor that is until she has borne the King two children and his favor for her wanes shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Anne Boleyn steps in to catch the King’s attention while her sister Mary is recovering from childbirth. It doesn’t take long for Henry to fall for another Boleyn girl and shortly after that the Boleyn family start pushing their political allies to help them remove Katherine and install Anne as Queen of England. However, Katherine of Aragon will not be so easily banished. Her refusal to give Henry a divorce forces Henry to break from the Church. His citing that his marriage was “invalid” and cursed by God falls on deaf ears in Rome and gets him excommunicated.
The plotting and pacing of this novel was well done. There were many scenes that I bookmarked. I personally enjoyed the Howard plotting and political machinations for which there were quite a few scenes (bookmarked). Despite all the treachery and back stabbing, I sighed with relief that Mary found true love with William Stafford thereby escaping the fate of her brother and sister. While Anne was arrogant and often drunk with her own power, she was devoted to the family ambition. She was also hard to tolerate because at times I wanted to strangle her myself. Like most readers, I was surprised that Anne was able to keep the King’s interest as long as she did despite her many flashes of temper.
Those familiar with the story of Anne Boleyn will find Ms. Gregory’s novel of “what if” quite interesting if your interests lie in reading about the British monarchy. I’m no historian but it’s interesting to me that Gregory chooses to make certain claims that are either not supported or disproved by her peers. It is her right to spin her tale of “what if” any way she wants to as this story was an engaging read. I found that the novel which is told in first person quite limiting at times like when Mary was banished at Court or at Hever with her children when the real meat of the story was at court. Anyway, I was thoroughly engaged in the story and found myself close to the characters. Knowing the outcome, I dreaded what was to come.
I’ve finally read a Philippa Gregory novel and looking forward to reading more from her, too. Like many other readers, I consider myself a fan. The author certainly knows how to keep readers turning the pages full of scandal and treachery. The Other Bolyen Girl is a fast moving read so don’t let the page count scare you off. I rather enjoyed all the political suspense and maneuverings that leads up to the dreaded outcome. My grade, B+. Note: The book has been adapted to film to be released Feb 2008.
[tags]The Other Boleyn Girl Review, Historical Fiction, Philippa Gregory[/tags]