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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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10/22/2007 Archived Entry: "Book review: The Other Boleyn Girl"

The Other Boleyn Girl
by Phillipa Gregory
Published by Touchstone Books
A division of Simon & Schuster, 2003

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

Everybody knows about the six wives of Henry VIII, but not why old Henry got remarried so many times. The truth was, aside from needing a son and heir to perpetuate the Tudor Dynasty (which he got after he married #3, Jane Seymour, who died in childbirth), old Henry was just a horn dog. He needed women the way a junkie needs drugs. He thrived on attention and flattery, and who is better at that than a sweet young thing out to snare a rich husband?

Not that all his wives were like that; #1, Katherine of Aragon, he married for love, despite the fact that she was at least five years older than he was, and his late elder brother’s neglected widow (Henry VII, his stingy father, wouldn’t let her go back to Spain after Arthur died because her entire dowry hadn’t been paid). But when poor Katherine failed to produced the required male heir, that’s when the ambitious, upstart Boleyn family and their Howard connections began throwing their pretty young daughters at him, starting with Mary.

From spring 1521 to May 1536, considerably longer than a thousand days, Mary Boleyn narrates the story of her life and that of her infamous sister, Anne. Phillipa Gregory delves deep into the history of the Tudor Dynasty to give us the story of Henry VIII’s marital mistakes from the beginning, using the POV of a relatively minor historic character in the great masque that was Henry’s life.

Mary Boleyn is a historic enigma. She was supposedly the first Boleyn girl Henry ever loved, but as far as contemporary history is concerned, she was just a footnote, a prelude to old Henry’s great romance with her sister. Gregory makes her the younger sister, though Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, tells us she was the older sister. Gregory also makes her a naďve innocent and a pawn in the hands of her ambitious family, though Wikipedia insists she was a bit older than she’s depicted at the beginning of the book, and considerably more experienced sexually. According to Gregory, Mary Boleyn was married at twelve to Sir William Carey, a gentleman of the king’s chamber, so she could appear at court and be thrust under Henry’s nose like a tender young rabbit before a hungry hound. Old Henry was so enchanted by her that he took her for his mistress when she was thirteen.

Mary exceeded her family’s expectations by failing in love with her golden prince (Henry was still young and slender back then, about thirty years old, with the prettiest red-gold hair and an athletic body toned by exercise like horseback riding and tennis). She exceeded Henry’s expectations by having a daughter and a son in quick succession (again, history disagrees with Gregory here, noting that both of Mary’s children may not have been fathered by Henry VIII). Having proven her fertility, you’d think that Henry would do the smart thing and divorce Katherine to marry this sweet young thing who adores him and is able to bear sons. But no-o-o! Old Henry gets his head turned by her sexy sister while Mary’s pregnant with his son and starts dividing his time between the two of them, spending his days flirting with Anne and his nights with Mary in his bed.

Meanwhile the girls’ parents, cold-blooded opportunists both, along with Lady Boleyn’s ruthless brother Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (whom I learned to despise in Gregory’s last brilliant Tudor novel, “The Boleyn Inheritance”) are acting behind the scenes to make sure their girls stay in favor with the king. First they push Mary into the king’s bed and order her husband to stay away from her to make sure that she conceives a Tudor child. Then when Henry’s attention starts to wane, they push Anne at him, and Mistress Boleyn is all too willing to comply. Unlike her sister, who names her first baby Catherine in tribute to her kind mistress, she has no love for poor Queen Katherine, who still loves her wayward husband despite his neglect and manages to be kind to her ladies-in-waiting while knowing that Henry is sleeping with one of them and pursuing the other. With eyes wide shut, Katherine continues to behave like a loving wife and a good queen, politely ignoring his shoddy amours and praying constantly for her husband’s wandering eye to rest on her again. Not until he abandons her at court one Christmas and rides out with Anne does she realize that the marriage is over.

But Katherine’s love for him never ended, even after he exiled her to a cold, gloomy castle, deprived her of her only child, and stripped her of her queenly jewels at Anne’s demand, so Anne could wear them after their hasty marriage to prove to the world that she was the rightful queen of England. She even demands the royal christening robe, last worn by Princess Mary and before that by Katherine and Henry’s late son who died in infancy, to baptize her own royal brat. It gave me some satisfaction to see that she wasn’t able to get it.

When Anne’s baby, who she was so sure would be a boy, turns out to be a girl, who would grow up to be Elizabeth I, one of England’s greatest queens, Henry’s eye starts wandering again. That’s when Anne gets desperate and starts conniving with her sympathetic sister and her too-clever brother George to get a son for England, which involves witchcraft and possibly incest with her brother. This stretched credibility almost to the breaking point for me, especially after he reveals he is having an affair with Sir Francis Weston. But George does display an obvious affection for both his sisters, preferring their company even over his wife’s, much to his wife’s annoyance, to the point where he bestows a too ardent kiss upon Anne in her bedchamber one night, while all three Boleyn siblings are celebrating her upcoming marriage to Henry. Mary wasn’t the only one left feeling uneasy after that kiss; it made me feel icky too.

After her second miscarriage, things really start going downhill for Mistress Boleyn and her family. When she makes the mistake of exiling Mary from court for secretly marrying a mere commoner (Sir William Stafford, a gentleman knight from her Howard uncle’s household), she not only loses her only female friend, she unwittingly saves Mary from the awful fate that awaits her and their brother.

I found quite a few distasteful things about this story, not just the hint of incest between Anne and George, but the revelation that Lady Boleyn did not love her own children; she merely bore them out of duty and handed them over to be raised by nurses in the French court. This explains why she finds it so hard to understand why Mary misses her children, who are being raised in Hever Castle while their mother is at court. Poor Mary has to beg for permission to visit her own children every summer, even while she’s in the king’s favor, because her parents begrudge her every moment spent away from Henry, fearing that she might be replaced by a Seymour daughter. Knowing that noblewomen of that historic period were bought and sold like cattle in marriage and usually didn’t get to raise their own children, and reading about it, especially when it’s described so matter-of-factly, dampens some of my romantic ardor for that period. Reading about all the other nasty things that Mistress Boleyn was willing to do to win the king’s favor, including asking her sister Mary for tips on how to satisfy him in bed without spreading her legs, made me lose all the respect I once had for her as a feminist icon. It really drove home to me how powerless women were in that period, and how a woman’s very survival depended on the man she married.

Of course there is no happy ending for Anne Boleyn; she dies on the headman’s block after seeing her brother and two other gentlemen who were her particular friends, one of them her brother’s alleged lover, even her favorite minstrel Mark Smeaton, executed for being her lovers. But Mary escapes from court and lives quietly in the country with her commoner husband and all of her children, the two she bore him as well as Henry’s.

Most people of that time period would see it as a great comedown, going from being a king’s mistress to being the wife of a commoner. But in my opinion, any woman who can survive the glamour and intrigue of the Tudor court and find contentment in ordinary living with a husband she loves is a heroine of her time. Remember, she didn’t choose Henry, he chose her, even though she was married, and by the loose moral standards of Henry’s court she was obliged to accept the king’s carte blanche, to prove herself a loyal subject as well as an obedient daughter. After reading about the many political perils and personal heartbreaks Mary was forced to endure, among them having her son practically kidnapped by Anne as insurance against her own failure to bear a son, I was happy to see her finally able to follow her own heart, which few women of her class were able to do back then.

I only hope that the new movie based upon this novel, due to be released this December, is as exciting as the book. Of course Gregory takes a great many liberties with history, but she does it all in the name of artistic license. And it is a very good book in spite of the historic inaccuracies and downright lies, including George Boleyn’s homosexuality—he was known as a great womanizer but was actually bisexual, and the charge of incest against him and Anne was completely untrue—and the depiction of Mary Boleyn as an innocent girl of thirteen when she was actually seven years older than Anne, as well as the failure to mention that Mary was also briefly the mistress of King Francis I of France. I don’t read historic romances for history, I read them for the romance. After all, when you have a story to tell, you can’t let the facts get in the way. Or as the old newspaper editor said to the cub reporter back in America’s Wild West Era, “When choosing between the legend and the facts, print the legend!” After this Christmas, Phillipa Gregory may be responsible for the start of a new legend concerning Henry VIII and his women.

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