Philippa Gregory - The Other Boleyn Girl: A Novel

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The Other Boleyn Girl: expanding a footnote of history

May 25, 2002 (Updated Oct 26, 2007)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Interesting plot at least.

Cons:The author gets her facts badly mangled, some lack of detail makes the story suffer.

The Bottom Line: Badly managling her history, Gregory gives us a story of a silly girl who manages to be a king's mistress. Not recommended.


I was cruising the bookstore the other evening looking for some new reads. This one was tucked away in a corner, the gold stamping on the cover pulling me a bit closer. When I saw the title, I grabbed it up, having had a fascination with the Tudors ever since I was a young teenager. I had tried reading some of the author's previous work -- most notably A Respectable Trade, but I had been badly disappointed by her lack of style and color.

I should have known better and put it right back down on the display. Right from the start, we get a picture of the glamourous Tudor court that's a bit askew and downright wrong in spots. Taking the story of Anne Boleyn, the second of King Henry VIII's many wives, and the first to lose her head, author Philippa Gregory tells the storry from the point of view of her younger sister, Mary.*

This first person account shows a child bride** being pushed by her family to hop into the king's bed. Hardly any mention is made of her first husband, William Carey, he's there to show that Mary was 'respectable.' We get to see Mary falling head over heels for King Henry, and a rather passionless affair, with Mary being more of a dupe and a twit than anyone with any sort of brains.

Gregory draws on the writings of scholar Retha M. Warnicke for her portrayal of the Boleyn family. Although Warnicke's books are excellent studies of the Tudor court, some of her conclusions are regarded with some skepticism -- one of the main plot lines in this book is the closeness that existed between Anne and her brother, George. One of the charges that was brought at Anne's treason trial was that of incest, as well as adultery and hints of sorcery. Gregory has decided to use these as fact.

And it is that, the distortion of history in favor of skewing the view to her own plot devices that makes this novel fall apart. I know that authors, especially those who write historical fiction, are expected to take certain liberties, but this was so badly done here that it made the book laughable rather than a pleasant excursion into a dramatic life spent in a glittering court. Mary Boleyn in this plays the part of the ultimate victim and 'good girl', with the character of her sister, Anne, drawn with such a wide brush that there's very little to like about her at all.

For a much better novel of the same subject and story, if in a lighter, more traditionally romantic style, I would suggest Karen Harper's Passion's Reign,, recently reprinted as The Last Boleyn or the more scholarly and entertaining works by Alison Weir. For something out a bit in left field, but no less the entertaining (and at least the facts are right) try on Kathryn: In the Court of Six Queens for a similar treatment.

I seriously doubt that any editor took a hard look at this manuscript to check out the details, and just rubber stamped it. Although the story and the character of Mary does get more interesting later on, it's still a dud and not worth it. Comes with an author's note and bibliography as well as a discussion guide and Q&A with the author.

* Flaw number one -- It's a well-known historical fact that Mary was the elder, not younger sister, of Anne Boleyn. And that Mary spent a number of years at the court of Francois I, and evidently was a great favorite of the gentlemen there, as ambassador's documents show that she was described as la grande putaine. Gregory conveniently skips over this detail. In fact, it might have been Mary's experiences that may have driven Anne to hold out being a wife and queen, rather than just a king's mistress.

** Flaw number two -- Mary was wed well after she returned from France, not as a child of eleven or twelve. Although child betrothals and marriages were fairly common, it wasn't usual to be consummated until well after puberty hit.

Other novels by Philippa Gregory set in the reign of Henry VIII:
The Constant Princess -- Katharine of Aragon
The Boleyn Inheritance -- Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard


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