Having read a lot of Elizabethan literature in college, I have rather an obsession for anything Elizabethan or Tudor. Henry VIII and the story of the six wives (some of whom he beheaded) also caught my fancy when I first read about it.
The Other Boleyn Girl is the story of the lesser known Boleyn sister, Mary Boleyn. Historians may disagree with the characterization, dates, motives and actions of the people in this story, and there has been criticism of inaccuracies, but read it as a novel, a fictionalized version and it is rather believable for the most part and thoroughly enjoyable throughout. The characters are rich, the intrigue delicious and the romance wonderfully old-world. Poetry and jousts are the order of the day, and being a courtier is a full-time job. Philippa Gregory has used history as a starting point and let her imagination fill in the blanks and take the story forward. All the women characters are full of life and immensely likable or hate-able, no milksops here.
The story begins in 1521 with the execution of Duke of Buckinhamshire, who is a relative of Mary and Anne Boleyn. Mary is the narrator of the story and through her eyes we see political intrigue, matters of church and state, adulteries, romances, court workings and plenty more. It is a time when the young King Henry is still very much in love with his wife Katharine of Aragon (a Spanish princess). But men will be men and a king is much more than a mere man, and so continues his many affairs while the Queen finds strength in prayer.
It is at this happy time in the English court that Mary Boleyn catches the King’s eye. Even though she is married at the time, she is offered up by her ambitious family, seeing this as an opportunity to get closer to the King.
The way Gregory tells it, Mary is no innocent lamb either. But through the course of her affair, she falls in love with the King and even has two children by him. But she doesn’t have the cunning or the charm to hold his interest for too long and the King’s roving eye moves on. Soon she is usurped by her own sister, Anne Boleyn, an ambitious and rather ruthless woman. She manages to hold onto the King’s interest for 5 years without giving in to him, all the while urging him to set aside his marriage with Katherine. This works, no doubt in great part because Katherine is unable to produce a male heir. Convinced that his marriage is cursed (since he married his brother’s wife) Henry is desperate to have his marriage of 24 years annulled so that he can marry Anne.
The Pope refuses to authorise this, and finally Britain breaks away from the Roman Catholic Church, establishing the King as head of state and church. Henry marries Anne and she is now the Queen. Mary is forced to serve her as a lady-in-waiting and help their family protect their interests. Anne’s troubles are far from over: the King continues his cavorting, which Anne doesn’t accept with the patience of Katherine. Anne is also unable to provide a male heir to the increasingly panicky King. Other families are jostling for power and Anne is helplessly caught in a web of her own making.
Mary Boleyn, in the meantime, has realized what is important to her: her children and the love of a good man. She marries Willam Stafford (her first husband died of the sweating sickness) and lives the simple life as the wife of a farmer in a quiet little village. Political intrigue threatens her life and peace, but she manages to come out of it virtually unscathed although the rest of her family is lost to her.
The King now falls in love with the quiet and pious Jane Seymour and the cycle continues. Anne Boleyn is accused of witchcraft, adultery and incest and in spite of all her efforts is found guilty and beheaded.
Great read: the characters are wonderful, the plot and many sub plots engaging, the twists and turns are delightful. History buffs may scoff, but as a story, it is brilliant. All the other Philippa Gregory books are now on my to-read list.