Philippa Gregory - The Boleyn Inheritance

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Gregory's The Boleyn Inheritance: an improvement on her earlier work.

Oct 26, 2007
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Gregory is improving in her writing style.

Cons:Still have problems with her novels.

The Bottom Line: Better than most of Gregory's work, there's still plenty to nitpick over in this one.


I've been having a love-hate relationship with author Philippa Gregory ever since she wrote her first novel set in Tudor England. I love the fact that she's writing about this dynasty of monarchs where treachery and excess ruled, but I absolutely hate her writing style and the liberties that she takes in the hunt for the sensational. And to my dismay, I've kept reading some of her work in the vain hopes that she just might improve.

Her most recent novel, The Boleyn Inheritance, almost did it for me. Continuing her saga of the many wives of Henry VIII, this time she tells the story of the fourth and fifth wives, Anne of Cleves, and Katherine Howard. King Henry VIII hasn't had much luck with his spouses so far -- he broke the heart of his first wife, Katharine of Aragon; the second one, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded for adultery, and the third, Jane Seymour, died in childbed after giving Henry the precious son he so craved.

Now the king wants another wife, and his chancellor, Thomas Cromwell has arranged an alliance with a small German principality, and the choice has fallen on Anne of Cleves. Across all of England, women are angling for the duties of ladies-in-waiting to the new queen, all of whom are hoping to find wealth and possibly romance. Gregory tells the story through the eyes of three women, all in first person narrative.

Jane Boleyn, once Queen Anne Boleyn's sister-in-law, and who helped to send her husband and the queen to the headsman's axe, lives in a lonely and bitter exile in the countryside. She has recieved nothing of the riches that the Boleyns once had, and only her title of Lady Rochford has remained. Still, there's a chance, especially when the head of the Howard family, the Duke of Norfolk, decides to sponser Jane into the royal household, wanting to have a reliable spy among the Queen's women. Jane happily accepts, knowing that by helping the duke, she can rise to wealth and possibly even a new marriage for herself.

Katherine Howard, the duke's very pretty niece, has been raised among a multitude of Howard cousins and dependents. She's vivacious and lively, and more than tempting to men even at the young age of fourteen. Already there are secret romances flourishing at night in the girl's dormitory, and pretty little Kitty has already fallen for the charms of Francis Dereham, another ward of the Duke. They've made a rather clumsy and secret betrothal between themselves, but when the Duke decides to dangle her as bait for the aging king, she's delerious with the prospect of going to court.

Finally there is Anne of Cleves herself. Raised in a strict Lutheran household, she doesn't know any of the skills that a lady of Henry's court would know -- no dancing, singing, music-making or gambling for her! She's endured a hateful relationship with her brother, who may have shut their father up to starve to death, and only her resolve to make the very best of what the future may have is what is keeping her together. Too, she knows that she is not very pretty, but she has a grace and dignity all her own, and arrives in England not knowing the language or the customs of her new kingdom.

Worst of all, her first meeting with Henry is a dismal failure, both parties being taken aback by what they see. Henry is now in his forties, aging and bloated, with an old injury nearly crippling him and stinking to high heaven. He's grown irascible and hovers between rage and quiet, and Anne quickly learns just how dangerous the life of an English queen can be. There's no one that she can trust, not even the oh-so-helpful Lady Rochford, nor the charming Katherine Howard, and when the marriage lurches to the inevitable failure, Anne begins to live in terror of losing her head as well.

Katherine Howard dances and plays, finding the royal court to be a delightful world of young men, a doting king and an endless stream of presents and jewels and pretty gowns. So much so that she can scarely see what is simmering underneath, and when the opportunity comes as the king turns his attention to her, Katherine is simply delighted to be the next Queen. All she has to do is produce another son for the king, and her future will be secure. But the reality of the king's nightly visits is a far cry from the pleasures she knew with Francis, and when Jane Rochford suggests that a younger man might be what she needs, Katherine hasn't the sense to say no...

This time, Philippa Gregory stays pretty much within what is known with her story. For those who have already read about King Henry VIII and his many wives, there's very little that is new. What is interesting is how Gregory tells the story. By using the personal perspective of Jane, Anne and Katherine to tell the story, the reader gets to know these women on an intimate level, seeing their secret desires, their weaknesses, and how each of them cope with setbacks and the web of treachery around them. That's the strong point with this novel, and Gregory manages to make each voice somewhat distinct.

However, given my previous experiences with Gregory's work, I wasn't expecting much out of this novel either. She tends to introduce supernatural elements into her story, and here at least stays away from that, and keeps pretty much to what is known. Too, she relies heavily on the work of Retha Warnicke for most of her sources, a scholar whose theories are questionable at best -- I loathed her novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, and here she uses the idea of Anne of Cleves being charged with witchcraft, a notion that is ludicrous, as a means of clearing the way for Katherine Howard.

However, the portrayal of Katherine Howard as a featherbrained nitwit is pretty much spot on, and Jane Rochford is one of the more distasteful characters to come down in history. Gregory tries to make her sympathetic, with mixed results.

Another problem that I had with this was Henry. Here he's a nasty, farting, bleching monster of a man, flying into rages and fits of ire at a moments notice. His scathing comments to Anne of Cleves in an early sequence didn't quite ring true -- like any good showman, Henry was very careful how he treated others in public, leaving his more violent side in private, and preferably in the hands of others. His treatment of Anne of Cleves was actually quite careful, and in all of the accounts that have survived, he treats her with great kindness.

But the biggest problem is the use of the three major characters speaking in an 'I' voice. It's damn confusing at the start, without any real way to keep everyone separate. Too, they all tend to think and speak alike pretty much, and Gregory has them endlessly ruminating on things, and going over and over and over again the same territory. It gets very tedious throughout the book, slowing down the plot and hardly giving any real motion to the story.

Despite an author's note, and a reading guide for book clubs with various questions, what really is lacking here is anything about Anne of Cleve's life after Henry -- it gets interesting, and she was able to maintain a close relationship with all of Henry's surviving children, even including Mary Tudor.

Still, for those readers who can't get enough of England's Tudor kings and queens, this will probably be an enjoyable read. If you don't know much about them, this makes an interesting starting point, but after this, I would suggest the more scholarly works out there, such as the ones by Alison Weir and David Starkey. A forthcoming biography on Jane, Lady Rochford is planned for later on in 2007, titled, Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford by Julia Fox, a book that I am looking forward to.

Three and a half stars, rounded up to four. Somewhat recommended, depending on how much the reader knows about the facts of Henry VIII's life and court.

Other novels by Philippa Gregory set in the reign of Henry VIII:
The Constant Princess -- Katharine of Aragon
The Other Boleyn Girl -- Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour

This is my review #33 in CopeSullivan's Fifty Reviews by Halloween Write-Off. Find out more by clicking here.

The Boleyn Inheritance
Philippa Gregory
2006; Touchstone Books
ISBN 0-7432-7251-X


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