On my first reading of The Other Boleyn Girl in 2001, I was impressed by Philippa Gregory’s bravery in writing against the popular romantic image of the Tudor queen as a much-maligned victim. I re-read the book again this past week as part of my research into medieval witchcraft, and still maintain this is one of the finest examples of historical fiction in the genre.
Gregory plays the devil’s advocate by posing the question: What if Anne Boleyn really was guilty of the charges brought against her? She then weaves a plausible explanation of the young woman’s dangerous rise to power, a gamble that ultimately cost her life. The story is told through the eyes of the other Boleyn girl at court, her sister Mary. And although British historian David Starkey claims there are only “four known facts” about Mary Boleyn, and that this therefore amounts to “one fact per seventy-five pages,” Gregory does a splendid job of recreating an authentic version of the Tudor court from numerous other sources. There are, fortunately, many more extant facts regarding Anne and Henry!
Gregory’s Queen Anne is not an endearing character, but then everything said about her comes from the rival sister’s lips – one of the women she ousted from the king’s bed. Anne is portrayed as ambitious, vain, single-minded, selfish, ruthless, callous, manipulative, and amoral. Yet she is also intelligent, artistic, fashionable, and fun. She is not a practicing witch – though she does enchant Henry and all those around her – but when placed in a desperate situation she turns to a local wise woman for help. As the king is aging and impotent, when Anne needs a son to secure the throne her brother George steps in as a replacement. And she may or may not have poisoned some of her enemies.
The Other Boleyn Girl strips away the traditional glamor of court, presenting a much more realistic insight into the fragile and perilous lives of the youngsters groomed as bargaining chips by their ambitious families. It also highlights the differences between those born high and low, and how real happiness lies in the simple pleasures of life. The characters are engaging and interesting – even as they descend into strange, dark places. And the psychological explanations offered for Anne Boleyn’s criminal behavior are fascinating, thought-provoking, and plausible – even if factually untrue.
A five-star read!