The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc./Touchstone, 2003. 672 pages.
Today there are still jokes about how Anne Boleyn lost her head, but life as a wife of Henry VIII was no laughing matter. In The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory gives a fictional account of Henry’s most famous queen from the perspective of her sister, Mary. Gregory tries to capture a sisterly dynamic understandable to contemporary readers. Anne and Mary are opposites in appearance and temperament; loyal to one another out of obligation, not love; and, we are told, lifelong rivals. Oddly, that rivalry never quite materializes here other than in spiteful and venomous words and feelings. While Anne seethes with ambition and resentment, Mary is too passive a personality to be a match for Anne, nor does she try to be. As portrayed, the conflict between the sisters is more petty than powerful.
Gregory’s choice for Mary to serve as narrator, as though it were her memoir, detracts from the sense of history. A Tudor-era aristocrat like Mary does not seem likely to set her story down in such detail after the events have passed. It might have been more effective to frame the story as a researcher’s discovery of Mary’s journals and letters. When handled adroitly, this type of framing device can make the characters and story more immediate and less obviously fictional. Another alternative would have been the omniscient third person, which might have been more convincing. As it is, I could not suspend my disbelief in Mary’s voice, with its anachronistic nuances and sensibilities. She sounds more like a modern author than a 16th-century woman remembering the recent and difficult past.
Therein lies another problem — Mary never explains why she wrote all of this down, why she delves into such detail, or who she expects the reader to be. It might have made more sense if she had said she wanted her legacy to be the true story of her and her family’s role in Anne’s rise and fall, that she wanted her own name to be remembered, or that she was writing for her children and Anne’s daughter, the Princess Elizabeth. We never know her purpose, which is strange because we learn from her that the Boleyn family does nothing without a reason. Given how poorly Mary’s memories reflect on all the Boleyns and Howards, including herself, it become even more of a mystery why Gregory chose this format.
The Other Boleyn Girl draws readers in the same way that 1980s night-time dramas drew in viewers. Never particular about morals and influenced by time and events, Anne becomes as ruthless and desperate for power as any soap villainess, with her family’s encouragement and support. Mary, once favored by king and family, is tossed aside when she proves to lack the will and desire to usurp the queen’s place. She chooses her own path, never losing sight of her rivalry with Anne and never envious of Anne’s sacrifices and sufferings.
Historical inaccuracies aside, including details about Mary and her children, Gregory fails to capture the larger world in which the Boleyn drama was enacted. She refers to France and Spain and their rulers, and the pope, but the complexity of the world outside Henry VIII’s court and its politics is relegated to the background, brought forward in snippets only as needed. Henry himself is portrayed as hunting, gaming, and dancing from morning until night, with only an occasional concern for the kingdom’s business or for the intrigues of his enemies and allies. The world here seems narrow and confined because it is only the world Mary sees — Mary, the other Boleyn girl who pretends to remain naive and who tries to focus on her own life, only to be drawn again and again into Anne’s drama.
Gregory tries to use the story of the Boleyn girls to illustrate women’s issues during the 16th century. As Mary notes, women are only pawns in the marriage game, played to achieve position, power, and wealth. It’s clear, however, that men who lack power are pawns as well; George Boleyn and Henry Percy are forced into miserable marriages. The lesson here is less about the vulnerability of women to the whims of men than about how people of both gender were played for power.
Despite Gregory’s comments about the charges against the Boleyns, found in the book’s end matter, Mary witnesses (and, significantly, remembers in detail) enough clues to know whether Anne and George were guilty of the crimes for which they were beheaded. This is disappointing, because Gregory’s hints, if not her stance of ambiguity, ignore the logic and the politics behind the charges.
Even at the end, Gregory misses an opportunity. Mary does not hear Anne’s last words and does not include them in her work. This makes no sense, as they were recorded and can be read today. Gregory fails to weave in the available documented details that would have added real-life drama and interest to the story. Why would Mary not reflect on the final message of “the other Boleyn girl,” given her inside knowledge of Anne and her willingness to write about her and the other Boleyns?
With its compelling historical setting, The Other Boleyn Girl had the potential to be an engaging if inadequate and flawed historical fiction. Don’t rely on it, as I have heard some do, for your knowledge and understanding of Henry VIII, his court, or the Boleyns.
12 April 2008
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf