I’ve had The Other Boleyn Girl on the shelf for quite a while, but it was listening to the Sentimental Garbage podcast that inspired me to finally pick it up. I saw the movie a long time ago, and remember really enjoying it. I figured as well that it might be a good warm-up for Wolf Hall, another historical fiction take on the reign of Henry VIII. I would proffer a spoiler warning here, but honestly, if you don’t already know about Henry’s wives and divorces and executions and what-not, I don’t know how to help you.
Philippa Gregory has a PhD in 18th century literature. She’s written a number of historical romance novels about the Boleyns and Tudors (“The Tudor Court Novels”), and other books of contemporary fiction, but The Other Boleyn Girl is surely the book for which she’s best known. It’s a semi-speculative historical romance, which posits that Henry VIII originally fell in love with then-14-year-old Mary Boleyn before famously divorcing his wife, and England from the Vatican, to marry her older sister Anne.
The story is told from Mary’s perspective, and is loosely based on the true historical record of her life (though so little is known about her, there’s basically just her name and a few murky autobiographical details for Gregory to work from). It begins with the execution of Mary’s uncle, in 1521. He’d been foolish enough to say out loud that the King wasn’t capable of siring a “natural heir” (i.e., a son), and when word got back to Henry, he was not pleased.
Mary was 13 years old at that time, newly married to William Carey (a man much her senior), and freshly appointed to the royal court as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catharine of Aragon. She was certain that Henry would pardon her uncle, so it was quite the shock when his head was lopped off – portending much darker things to come for the Boleyn family.
That was one of my favourite things about The Other Boleyn Girl and Gregory’s writing: the *chef’s kiss* ominous foreshadowing. When Mary is first favoured by the King, and her family plots to use the attraction to advance themselves, Anne says to her: “If I were in your shoes it would be the king or nothing for me… I’d put my neck on the block for a chance at him.” Nailed it!
Your standard historical fiction romance novel might focus only on the Mary and Henry storyline, but that takes up only about the first third of The Other Boleyn Girl. Henry knocks Mary up a couple of times, and motherhood ages her very quickly. As she becomes more interested in, y’know, raising her kids, as opposed to sneaking off to boink the King while his wife’s not looking, Henry finds his eyes wandering… all the way over to Mary’s sister, Anne.
That’s where the story comes to more familiar (i.e., slightly-more-accurate) ground. Anne encourages the King’s attraction – as do all of the Boleyn family, Mary really couldn’t give a shit by this point – and starts pressuring him to wrangle his way out of his marriage to Catherine so that she can
solidify her position as the most powerful woman in England give him an heir.
I’m telling you all about the ladies’ action and motivation here, because the men are all incredibly gross, with their unnatural inclination towards barely-teen girls (EW!) and constant pissing contests. The only exceptions, really, are William Stafford (whom Mary goes on to marry, after the King marries Anne, and Mary’s first husband dies of “sweating sickness”), and the closeted Boleyn brother, George. The latter ends up being executed, alongside Anne, for his “crimes”, which is the biggest bummer of the book.
I thought The Other Boleyn Girl would be steamier, so I was disappointed by the (mostly) closed-door sex scenes. There was a lot of politics, a lot of gossip, a few pregnancies and how-to tutorials, but very little actual smut.
The absence of steam also meant that the story dragged a bit: waiting for Henry to get his divorce, and then waiting for Anne to conceive the heir she’d promised him… Perhaps that’s because I was all-too-aware of what was coming. When the story finally reached its climax, and what we all knew would happen happens, it all felt a bit… well, anti-climactic.
Reviews of The Other Boleyn Girl were mixed. Fans praised its depiction of “claustrophobic palace life in Tudor England”, while critics pilloried Gregory for “lack of historical accuracy”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re coming to romance novels for “accuracy”, you have bigger problems. That certainly wasn’t an issue I took with Gregory’s telling of the Boleyn saga. As I’ve said, I was disappointed in Gregory skipping over the dirty bits, and had to plod through all the politics before reaching the inevitable conclusion, but her creativity in imagining the role that Mary might have played at court, and the aforementioned genius foreshadowing, made up for it.
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Other Boleyn Girl:
- “If OK magazine and Penthouse had been writing in the 1500’s this is what they would have come up with.” – Kindle Customer
- “could be better” – Cameron
- “Yes henryVIII was a womanizing pig. yes he chased everything in a skirt under 20 with a pulse. yes he wanted a son. but why all the sexual bs gregory freak us out write a novel without the bleedung sex please” – virginia corley