Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

The Other Boleyn Girl – Philippa Gregory

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.

The Other Boleyn Girl - Philippa Gregory - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Other Boleyn Girl here.
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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 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


  1. Hahahaha. Oh gosh, you crack me up so much with these reviews. I never got around to commenting on your Bridgerton review but… nailed it! Although I don’t mind reading the series… but totally get what you mean about the less than expected steam there. And yeah… who reads hist rom for facts?!! C’mon ppl.

    Totally agree with you on Bolelyn Girl too. My husband was actually the one who wanted to read this… some many years ago. Lol. He reads like two books a decade so him wanting to try one is always interesting 😂🤣 I remember reading it after him and comparing what I’d read to what I knew from history… yeah….. Hahaha. But, some bits really do make you wonder….

  2. We watched the film of this last weekend and I (supposedly the resident Tudor expert) got quizzed about Mary and the accuracy of the film. Had to admit I knew zilch about her beyond the fact that she’d had a fling with the King and got ditched in favour of her sister. Now I knew why my knowledge was so scant. Married at 13 and then basically prostituted by her ambitious family Poor girl

    • ShereeKUWTP

      July 17, 2021 at 1:16 PM

      Yep, she definitely had a rough trot. It’s a shame we don’t know more about her (officially, I mean).

  3. I’m probably remembering this wrong, but I reckon there was a contemporary mention of Mary Boleyn in a letter written by a Catholic bishop. The bishop alleged that the king of France, Francis I, had described Mary to him as ‘a great and infamous whore’. Mary Boleyn went to France in 1514 as a maid in waiting to Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII and Queen of France (she married King Louis XII). The following year, Louis died and his son-in-law Francis became king; Mary Boleyn remained at the French court until 1520, when she came home to England to be married. So she certainly spent several years in close proximity to Francis I, but apart from the bishop’s letter, I don’t think any evidence survives to shed light on their relationship, or the motivation behind Francis’s (alleged) unflattering description of Mary. (Frankly, I’m not even sure it *was* meant to be unflattering – given Francis’s own prodigious sexual exploits, he might have been complimenting her. I vaguely recall some king or other calling his mistress ‘the merriest harlot’ and meant it as a compliment. Edward IV and Elizabeth Shore, maybe?) I wish I could remember where I first heard this from, but I can’t. Depending on when it was written, it’s also possible that the bishop might himself have fashioned the anecdote, based on the fact that Mary Boleyn was known to have been a mistress of Henry VIII. Besides the obvious inference about Mary’s character, it also implies that she was a mistress of Francis I. As for what political reasons might lie behind such a fabrication, I couldn’t begin to guess. But it’s interesting to speculate! 🙂

    • Sheree

      October 5, 2022 at 3:27 PM

      Wow, Kate! That *is* fascinating! And I must admit, I’ve been called far worse than “a great and infamous whore” – it sounds like a compliment to me 😉 Thank you for sharing!

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