Most people have heard of Anne Boleyn, wife of Henry VIII, who was famously beheaded after she failed to bear him a son. Philippa Gregory’s historical novel "The Other Boleyn Girl" paints a vivid (although fictionalized) picture of the Boleyn family at the English court.
The story spans the years 1521-1536. It covers the aspirations of the Boleyn family, led by young Anne, the coldest and most scheming among them. She is determined from the start to charm her way into a marriage proposal from none other than the king. The tale is told from the perspective of Anne’s sister Mary, the most conscience-driven of the Boleyns, whose real aspiration is a quiet family life on a farm but who is nevertheless forced by her family to participate in amorous intrigues at court. Their brother George is also a key player.
On one occasion, Anne instructs George, "Don’t call me Annamaria any more. And don’t call her Marianne. She is Mary, the other Boleyn girl. And I am Anne, Queen Anne to be. There is a world of difference between us two. We don’t share a name. She is next to nobody and I will be queen." This is typical of her character. It is also typical of Mary to muse quietly out of her sister’s earshot: "You know, there might be some joy in being a nobody."
At over 650 pages, "The Other Boleyn Girl" is long for a novel, and it certainly could have been shorter. The characters’ loyalties are straightforward: the three siblings form a united front for their own social advancement, trusting few others. (Sometimes, however, they are at odds even with each other. "For a moment we glared at each other, stubborn as cats on the stable wall, full of mutual resentment and something darker," Mary intones, "the old sense between sisters that there is only really room in the world for one girl.") Gregory sets the scene quickly, and overall there are not many plot-driven events that would seem to require the overall word count. The story is a succession of infidelities, marriages, babies, and the occasional execution. Henry’s separation from the Church of Rome is mentioned but not examined in depth.
On the other hand, those who enjoy losing themselves in the world of a long novel will appreciate the imaginative detail given to the family’s story. Gregory particularly does an excellent job of creating a sense of what it felt like to live in that era. Descriptions of period clothing are woven into the characters’ actions (such as their dressing and undressing), and this helps the reader to visualize the scene. Her story elements suggest what it was like to wait months for someone to return from another country on horseback without receiving any word from them, to have servants carry out the chamber pot, and to believe that one’s survival at court is determined by the ability to carry a pregnancy to term.
Moreover, anyone who reads it will not soon forget the tale of Anne Boleyn and her place in history.
Originally posted to Helium Network on March 31, 2013.
Image: Anne Boleyn is most famous for her neck. In "The Other Boleyn Girl," she favors a pearl necklace. The photographer of the pearl necklace is unknown. From the Smithsonian Institution Archives. © No known copyright restrictions. Flickr.