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The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory (2001)

November 17, 2012

“Patented Daydream Charms …”

Hermione had managed to squeeze through to a large display near the counter and was reading the information on the back of a box bearing a highly coloured picture of a handsome youth and a swooning girl who were standing on the deck of a pirate ship.

“`One simple incantation and you will enter a top-quality, highly realistic, thirty-minute daydream, easy to fit into the average school lesson and virtually undetectable (side effects include vacant expression and minor drooling). Not for sale to under-sixteens.’ You know,” said Hermione, looking up at Harry, “that really is extraordinary magic!”

– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince

The juggernaut. This book has probably provoked more comment than all of the others put together, and let’s just say that emotions tend to run high during these discussions. Only part of the debate has anything to do with the book itself – the rest of it is centered around the author’s interviews and her claims about her own historical veracity. We’ll look at that another time, but for today, we’ll just look at the book.

Fourteen-year-old Mary Boleyn has been married for two years (yes, she was a twelve-year-old bride) when her sister Anne comes home from the French court, supposedly for marriage to Ormonde’s heir (“A countess,” Anne says smugly to Mary, whose rejoinder is “Only Irish.”) The match fades away without our so much as getting a glimpse of James Butler, or even learning his first name, and soon Mary’s problems come to the fore; at court, Henry VIII has noticed her and flirted more than a bit, and Thomas Boleyn and the Duke of Norfolk – Mary’s maternal uncle – call the first of what turn out to be many, many family councils in which it is decided that Mary will make a bid to become the King’s mistress, thus leading to the enrichment and elevation of both the Boleyn and Howard families, at the expense of their longtime rivals the Seymours. Mary is shocked and horrified at the idea of breaking her marriage vows, but she has “no choice” as her sympathetic but helpless brother George advises her, and the game is on.

Mary, being a peaceable sort, dislikes the whole business (she hates to wound Catherine of Aragon, and is sorry that she is “no longer her favourite little maid”), but Anne is all for it and keeps planning out the next step with Mary, being fascinatingly French to other courtiers, and lamenting her own single and virginal state (although since she’s only fifteen it seems a bit soon to be worrying). Fortunately for Anne, Henry Percy – awkward, shy, a bad versifier, but nevertheless lovable – heaves into sight and soon she’s cultivating him while Mary is busy sleeping with king, getting pregnant by the king, agonizing about the wrong done to her husband by this, and generally bearing the weight of the Howard families’ crimes (such as they are) upon her shoulders. At one point Mary is sent to Hever for a few months, and while there she learns to love the countryside and her landlord duties and comes back to court reluctantly, having realized that all she really wants is a quiet life. As she tells Anne after her daughter Catherine’s birth, “There are things that matter more” than ambition and acquisition, namely, raising one’s own children and living away from the den of gaudy vice that is the court. Anne doesn’t take this view, but an exile in the country awaits her nonetheless, after Wolsey gets wind of her involvement with Henry Percy. She’s genuinely in love with him, albeit still appreciating his prospects, and to make sure nobody can get between them, she and Percy exchange vows, witnessed by both Mary and George, and then slip off later on to consummate their marriage.

Despite her telling Wolsey about this, however, he’s having none of it, insists suavely that her memory must be faulty as it would be most unfortunate if these things were true, and sends both her and Percy away in disgrace, leaving Anne an embittered shell. “There is nothing left for me but ambition,” she tells Mary later, and after the birth of Mary’s son Henry, Anne’s ambition comes to fore; she’s been kept busy by the family, flirting with and entertaining the king so he won’t stray from the Boleyn/Howard family and their interests, and as in so many stories before and since, the decoy becomes the real love interest. The Boleyn and Howard faction, which had been previously dreaming up an unlikely sounding scheme to get Mary married to the king (by getting her marriage annulled on the grounds on non-consummation and the king’s for some reason which boils down to “Catherine of Aragon couldn’t produce”), now has another family confab and decrees that Anne will be the one who’s given a free run at the king, as he’s now fascinated with her and Mary has gotten about as much out of him as she can. Mary has one last use, though; just as her and Henry’s relationship was winding down, he confided in her about his mental torment regarding the legitimacy of his marriage and she, innocently unaware as she always is, tells Anne about it, expressing pity for Catherine of Aragon. Anne, naturally, sees what this news really implies and soon she’s working the religious doubts angle on Henry, who is quite responsive.

Now the book settles into a pattern which sees several repetitions: Mary is at court helping the ever nastier and greedier Anne (it’s strongly implied that she’s behind the poisoning at Bishop Fisher’s house), and her uncle, father and mother make it clear to her that if she performs well, she’ll be “allowed” to go to Hever in the summer to see her children. Mary adores her children, so she allows herself to be her family’s puppet the other nine months of the year, while secretly despising their ambitions, of course. William Carey, with whom her relationship had been improving, dies of the sweat and then – horrors! – Anne decrees that she will “adopt” Mary’s son Henry as her own to educate and raise. Mary is stricken, but can do nothing. Life continues, with Mary being the pensioner of the Boleyn family and obliged to dance attendance on Anne, being permitted to see her children (although Anne insists that Henry is “MY son now” as she continually corrects Mary), and hearing a tormented confession from George that not only his marital life hellish, but that he’s actually in love with Francis Weston, a fact that for obvious reasons needs to be concealed at all costs.

Once Anne is finally married to Henry and pregnant, Mary is sure that once the prince arrives Anne will lose interest in her own son and she can once more take her children to the country and keep them there, but alas for everyone, the baby turns out to be Elizabeth. “What good is a girl to us?” cries a horrified Anne, but fortunately she’s soon pregnant again, and Mary is kept around to flirt with and divert the king during what Antonia Fraser calls the “theoretically celibate months” of his wife’s pregnancy.

There then follows one of the oddest variations on the “What happened to the 1534 pregnancy” questions that I’ve read: Anne, as it turns out, is indeed pregnant but has a late miscarriage. However, she does not want the king to know of it, because if he knows she had a miscarriage, he’ll think their marriage is cursed just as his marriage with Catherine was. This leads to a ridiculous yet weirdly compelling scene in which Mary and George sneak out at the dead of night to get a not-too-above-board wise woman to help Anne deliver the dead baby in secrecy; not wanting the woman to know Anne’s identity, they pretend that she’s merely a lady-in-waiting who’s gotten into a bit of trouble and Anne wears a golden bird mask from the masquing props department throughout. When the corpse is delivered, Mary and her mother burn the body in Anne’s fireplace.

Anne intends to keep Mary around as a second string until she manages to have a boy, but Mary forestalls that with the aid of William Stafford, who’s in her uncle’s retinue and whom she met several years earlier. Stafford’s chief virtue is that he, too, would like to live in the country, and he’s also very good with Mary’s children, when he sees them. Since Mary’s own chief ambition is to live on a farm and raise children, well, you can see where this is going. They marry secretly, and Mary’s pregnancy, discovery, and banishment go by the book – off she goes to Stafford’s farm, where in a highly unlikely turn of events the two of them actually do farm chores themselves, and that winter she delivers a baby girl named Anne. Before long, though, she’s summoned back to court by George, as Anne is pregnant again and will need her help – this pregnancy too ends early on and again a wise woman is summoned to help clean up the remains. Mary goes back to Hever to be with her children again, and once more she’s summoned back to court because Anne is pregnant yet again (yes, it’s a pattern). Anne hints that she has reason to believe the baby will be strong – cue ominous music – but it all comes to an end shortly after the king’s fall at jousting, and what’s worse, the baby is hideously deformed and the miscarriage can’t be hidden from Henry. Anne is fearful, overwrought and her downhill slide proceeds apace, as Henry is now convinced that she’s committed witchcraft, however, even now Mary can’t leave as her twelve-year-old daughter Catherine is newly arrived at court, and when Anne is arrested, she chooses Catherine as one of the ladies to attend her in the tower, and Mary can’t leave the city without her.

Although she should know better by this time, Mary is convinced that since Cranmer has annulled the marriage, Henry will pardon Anne and send her off to a convent instead of executing her – surely a queen can’t truly be killed? She can, as it turns out, and the book ends with Mary and Stafford scooping up Catherine – who attended Anne to the scaffold and is now released from her service – and riding off to the countryside, there to live peaceful lives well away from Henry’s orbit.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex. Not very explicitly described, but the book is absolutely vibrating with it.

WHEN BORN? In 1522, Mary is fourteen, Anne is fifteen, and George is nineteen – so 1503 for George, 1507 for Anne, and 1508 for Mary. Mary is, however, married in the historically correct year of 1520, meaning she’s twelve years old.

THE EARLY LOVE: For Mary, it’s Henry VIII – her stint at the French court is mentioned, but since her extremely young age negates the possibility of her having been involved with anyone there, her love life only gets off to a start once she marries Carey, who is dutiful but doesn’t exactly light her fire. With Henry, though “I wanted him to touch me, I was dying for him to touch me,” a besotted Mary tells Anne, who of course sets about planning Mary’s strategy for her.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Mary and Anne are both ladies in waiting to Queen Catherine, and share a room and bed – we see very few of the other ladies at length, except for Lady Rochford (catty, spying, and despised by George at their first meeting) and Jane Seymour, who actually gets a few lines – she’s a simpering, holier-than-thou type who’s not as bright as she thinks she is (she boasts of her ability to read French aloud, although she understands very little of it). Madge Shelton turns up later, a pretty, bright girl with, as Mary puts it, everything to play for, and another Howard girl to entertain Henry when Mary ruins her own chances. One point that’s emphasized over and over is how interchangeably the women are regarded; one Howard girl is as good as another, since they all fulfill the same function, and if one should fail, “there’s always another whore in the nursery.”

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Mary to Anne and her family, but no noticeable servant characters as such.

THE PROPHECY: A nicely-done inaccurate prophecy towards the beginning, when Henry abandons Mary’s bed for the queen’s because a soothsayer has told him that if he sleeps with the queen every night of the Christmas season, they’ll have a boy. Sure enough, Catherine misses her period the next month, but it turns out to be the beginning of menopause, not a prince. Mary is sad for the queen, Anne only wants to know who bribed the soothsayer to take Henry’s attention off of Mary for that long.

IT’S A GIRL! Anne and her family are disappointed and horrified, but Henry takes it surprisingly well. “Henry, always the king, always unpredictable, did not complain. He took the baby on his lap and praised her blue eyes and her strong, sturdy body …. He told Anne that next time they should have a boy, that he was happy to have another princess, and such a perfect little princess, in his household …. He gritted his teeth and tried not to think what they would say in the courts of Europe.”

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No. And while Anne’s still very fashionable, she doesn’t invent any sleeves.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Thomas Boleyn and the Duke of Norfolk (his brother-in-law) join forces at a number of family councils and meetings where they decide what the next step should be as they fight their way up the court ladder. Their dialogue and personalities are virtually indistinguishable: cold, opportunistic, harsh, issuing orders to the women and heaven help them if they disobey. Elizabeth Boleyn, far from the downtrodden flower that she’s often portrayed as, is right up there with her husband when it comes to coldhearted sexual strategy and the enforcement thereof. Anne, like her parents, has the chess-player’s mind and is always thinking ahead, but the chink in her armor is Henry Percy – she really does fall in love with him, bad poetry and all, and the loss of him is implied to be what really dooms her to the fate of being a cold-hearted witch. George is bright and witty, as usual, but per Retha Warnicke’s hypothesis he’s also a homosexual who’s having an affair with Francis Weston. (Rumours swirl around George even before this revelation; a page with whom he had been indiscreet is sent back home and George tries to paper it over with his sisters as a “misunderstanding.”) As a result, George has become very wary of anything done for the sake of love. When Mary falls for William Stafford, George’s philosophy is summed up thus:

“D’you remember Henry Percy?” George suddenly demanded.

“Of course.”

“He was in love. More than that, he was betrothed, more than that; he was married. Did it save him? No. He’s stuck in Northumberland, married to a woman who loathes him, still in love, still heartbroken, still hopeless. You can choose. You can be in love and heartbroken, or you can make the best you can of it.”

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? It’s implied very, very strongly that she was guilty of incest (although in later interviews the author is coy). Early on, George attempts half-jokingly to give Mary a French kiss, and in a letter to Mary about her final pregnancy, Anne writes that she has “reason to believe this child will be strong,” she and George, always flirtatious, give each other a lot of significant glances when the child is mentioned, and when she miscarries a deformed baby Anne is convinced that it’s a sign of her sin. On the whole, I’d say that adds up to a yes on that particular charge. The others, though, are dismissed as ridiculous.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: The phrase “the other Boleyn girl” is dropped enough times that you’ll get tired of it – first it’s Anne, then it’s Mary, and they both use it far too often. Anne’s “sexy little gurgle of laughter” makes a few appearances as well, more annoying than sexy to the reader. Her B necklace also recurs frequently. We know, Mary, we know she wore that necklace. Please stop telling us.

However, these are rare weak moments in what’s otherwise the book’s greatest strength; it’s very, very visual. The author knows what her characters are doing all the time, not just where they are and what they’re saying, and it gives an energy to the story which isn’t as common as you’d think. It works well whether it’s George Boleyn “idly swinging a pomander ball” while waiting for his sisters to emerge from their room, Anne and Mary delousing each other, or Anne getting off her horse with a graceless thump, as the king isn’t watching anymore and “it was no longer necessary to be light and laughing.” The sheer amount of work it took to be the perfect, enticing maid of honour comes across very strongly. And then there are the completely over-the-top scenes whose visual quality almost brings them from the ridiculous to the sublime. Here’s Mary, during her first foray in secretly bringing a midwife to a disguised and miscarrying Anne:

I took her to the little room where George’s pageboys slept and [the midwife] looked around the room and recoiled. In some grotesque moment of fancy George and Anne had raided the palace costume box to find a mask to hide her well-known face. Instead of a simple disguise they had found a golden bird face mask, which she had worn in France to dance with the king. Anne, panting with pain, half-lit by guttering candles, lay back on a narrow bed, her huge belly straining under the sheet and above it a glittering gold mask with a face like a hawk, a great gilt beak and flaring eyebrows. It was like a scene from some dreadful morality painting with Anne’s face like a depiction of greed and vanity, with her dark eyes glittering through the holes in the proud gold face …. The expressionless beak of the golden mask turned from the woman to George’s drawn face; but Anne herself said nothing.

ERRATA: This book has had so many fact-checking posts written about it that it seems extraneous to add mine, but I’ll try. I need hardly say that there is zero contemporary evidence that Anne and George committed incest, that Anne’s miscarried child of 1536 was deformed, or that George or any of the other accused men were gay (you can blame Retha Warnicke for the germ of the homosexuality idea, but again, no contemporary evidence and since “buggery” had become a capital crime in 1533, it’s highly unlikely that such charges would go unmentioned). While it’s likely Anne lost a pregnancy in 1534, there’s no evidence at all of such gothic proceedings surrounding it (even Henry VIII could hardly regard one miscarriage as proof of sin, and he was hardly likely to think a false pregnancy was better!) not to mention that a total cremation of even a very small body would be extremely difficult to achieve in any normal fireplace which wasn’t about the size of a modern kitchen. Fireplaces were in palace apartments were large, but they weren’t as large as all that. Lady Rochford is, as usual, described as the source for the incest accusation, though of course in this universe, she’s correct without knowing it.

Mary and William Stafford live on a farm, which isn’t ridiculous, and take care of it themselves, which is. There are a few token servants mentioned briefly, but Mary herself anticipates “skinning chickens” (she means plucking them, I assume) and William goes to milk the cows himself on a regular basis; when they return to court they give the reins to a neighbour who’s agreed to care for the animals until they return. All I know about farming comes from repeated childhood readings of Farmer Boy, but even so, it doesn’t seem like they’re doing nearly enough work on that place. There was a reason young people tended to flee the farm for the city, and I can’t imagine that the life was any easier five hundred years ago than one hundred years ago. Mary also drinks wine and water at a feast early on in the book; the wine is passable but the water in those days was not – even the poorest people would drink small beer to avoid the contaminants which lurked in plain water.

Mary’s uncle is described as the Duke of Norfolk in 1522, when he didn’t succeed to the dukedom until 1524, but this is probably just for ease of reading; keeping track of people whose titles change every few years can be more confusing than the profusion of nicknames in Russian novels. Less forgivably, Henry Percy is called the heir of the Duke of Northumberland. He was an earl, the Dukes of Northumberland were still in the future. Ambassador Mendoza is “a wily, Jesuit-trained lawyer,” which is quite a feat considering that the Jesuit order wasn’t founded until 1540. And when Mary gives birth, her confinement is the sort usually given to queens: kept in darkened rooms from a month before the birth until churching six weeks afterwards. It’s vividly described, but that’s not how it would have been, even if her children had been indubitably Henry’s. They were not heirs and had no official standing no matter how much private affection they received. And Anne’s “stealing” of Mary’s son was nothing of the kind; once Henry Carey’s father died, it was the usual course that his wardship would be purchased by, and his upbringing entrusted to, whichever high bidder found favour with the king — his mother did not automatically retain custody. In view of this fact, as well as the fact that Mary was left with very little money on her first husband’s death, it’s likely that Anne was doing her a favour by taking over Henry’s care and education. He was not regarded as Anne’s “son” at any point in this process, though.

WORTH A READ? It’s not hard to understand why this book was such a smash; the writing is clear and quick-moving if not particularly deep, and as in the Harry Potter quote above, it’s like a crystallized daydream. Mary is so good and helpless and put-upon and yet concerned with the Things That Really Matter (finding a loving husband, being close to her children) that it’s very easy for the reader to identify with her and take her side against the clever, cold, frightening Anne and the brilliant but tormented George. It’s also very comforting to learn vicariously that people like Mary are the ones who got it right all along. After all, very few of us are ever going to become powerful diplomats or enthrall a powerful ruler to the extent that a nation’s religion is upended and its course in history radically changed, but marrying for love and looking after our own children? Most of us manage to pull off one if not both of these things.

The Anne here is not really a cardboard villainess, although she’s definitely one of the less attractive specimens out there. She’s more of a throwback to the adventuress Annes of the mid-twentieth century, the ones whose lives were blighted by the loss of Henry Percy and for whom love was afterward a toy and ambition their only end. The story only really goes off the rails once she’s married, and the drama is ramped up to a point that even the heartless adventuress Anne of Anne Boleyn (1932) wouldn’t contemplate, and she’s one of the coldest fish to swim in the fictional Tudor pond. But this Anne’s problem is her setting; she’s being seen from the viewpoint of Mary, who is impossibly innocent, decent, and strangely in harmony with modern opinions, and she’s in a setting which is essentially pastoral. The farms and countryside are lovingly described; one gets the feeling that in this world, harvests always come in as they should, the weather is always beautiful, and the lives and loves of the country people simple, honest and straightforward. Against that setting, a family and court which until the last section is really not that different from many other fictional portrayals comes across as much colder, threatening and incomprehensible than it would otherwise. Why be ambitious when you can settle for life in a pretty painting? It’s a long historical daydream, and it works wonderfully – but not as a history lesson.

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7 Comments
  1. Susan Higginbotham permalink

    Great review! I started this years ago but didn’t finish it; you’ve made me want to read it through.

    • sonetka permalink

      Thanks, I hope you enjoy it! It’s the perfect airplane book, and I’m not trying to be backhanded when I say that — after all, lots of us need airplane books every year :).

  2. Ah, my favourite Mary B scene is in The King’s Pleasure by Norah Lofts. When Henry dumps her, she promptly has hysterics so he shakes her dramatically, (in the best Hollywood tradition!) in order to regain her senses. Unfortunately her sobbing and running nose causes tears and snot to fly all over his doublet! Ha, ha!

    • sonetka permalink

      Awesome, I’ve got to read that. That’s the one about Catherine of Aragon, right? I tend to avoid novels about her because — ironically, considering the novels I *do* like to read — they’re always such downers. There’s no element of rise and fall, unless you count the period she spent as Arthur’s widow and Henry’s marriage to her afterwards — just starting life at the top and a long, disappointing descent which she was largely unable to prevent.

  3. Yes, it’s about Catherine but Loft’s Mary seems to be the same character in both The Concubine and the King’s Pleasure. It is always interesting to me how Catherine’s end resembled her early life in England. In both cases, she ended up with a meagre household, away from the court, with a few faithful servants. Oh, and in both cases, the title of Princess Dowager. Still, at least Anne did not get her mitts on the christening robe, always one of my fave scenarios – that and burning off Catherine’s coat of arms off the Queen’s barge!

    • sonetka permalink

      In a way it reminds me of Cavendish’s life of Wolsey and how he (Cavendish) is always hammering home the moral, namely, that Fortune’s Wheel will turn when you least expect it and squash your prideful self like a bug. It’s a shame that Catherine didn’t have a Cavendish among her servants to write a similar biography of her — or if someone did, then it didn’t survive. There were visitors who wrote accounts, of course, but still it’s not quite the same thing. (And you know, while I kind of get the burning off the arms on the barge, in the sense that staying neutral is not an option and if she doesn’t attack she’ll be seen as having been defeated, the christening robe stunt was just low).

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