Wednesday, March 18, 2009
The Other Boleyn Girl
by Philippa Gregory
"I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck," and then put her hands about it, laughing heartily.
Such were some of the famous last words of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry the Eighth. I, like most people, am fascinated by English history, and I've always found the story of Anne very compelling. She was a quick, cunning woman. Her seductive wit and political prowess held no bounds; her obvious intelligence was legendary. Prince Charles should be thanking her for paving the way for divorce in the monarchy, but not even she could prevent herself from being pushed aside when like Queen Catherine, she could not give the king a son. We all know the hard lesson she learned from it.
But The Other Boleyn Girl isn’t told through her eyes, it’s told through the eyes of her sister, Mary Boleyn, a woman I’d never heard of; in reality, a woman of little consequence, who around the age of fourteen, returned to England from the French court and caught the eye of the King of England. At the urging of her family, she became his mistress and bore the king two children.
The next fifteen years follow the three Boleyn siblings: Mary, Anne, and George, and their trading of affections with each other, and between the two sisters, with King Henry himself. Anne and Mary’s relationship is depicted more as a one of intense rivalry and duty than of sisterly affection, and in the end I thought the story became more Anne’s than Mary’s, in that the author tried so hard to paint Anne in a bad light, finding cause in every accusation the king used as a justification in executing her.
No one really believes she did all the things he accused her of, yet these became the driving forces of the story, with Mary’s voice becoming very weak for me in the end. Almost invisible. What purpose did she serve exactly, I wondered. Had she learned anything from it all? Was she really secretly happy her sister had died the way she did? Was I as the reader? I wasn’t sure by the end, other than maybe King Henry wasn’t all to blame.
With that aside, I still found the book interesting and readable. The author’s words guided me through the historical narrative effortlessly until I’d read multiple pages without even realizing it. Only for a brief time did I feel some parts a bit too long and tedious, like the seven years King Henry waits to marry Anne. That felt like an eternity – as I’m sure it did for the sexually tormented Henry and his supposed virgin mistress, but other than that the book moved very swiftly for me. Smooth as creamy butter sometimes, and I loved it.
Reading this made me want to watch The Wives of Henry the Eighth on PBS again and learn more about these women and the man who proclaimed himself the God of this Earth, the head of his own church. What a time it must’ve been to live; a time when middle age was thirty years old; a time when death lurked around every corner, if not by the plague or the sweats, then the chopping block. I wonder if Anne really did laugh as she pondered her demise. Knowing what history really says about her, I would say yes. She was that kind of woman. 4 stars