Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

"I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck," and then put her hands about it, laughing heartily.

Such were some of the famous last words of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry the Eighth. I, like most people, am fascinated by English history, and I've always found the story of Anne very compelling. She was a quick, cunning woman. Her seductive wit and political prowess held no bounds; her obvious intelligence was legendary. Prince Charles should be thanking her for paving the way for divorce in the monarchy, but not even she could prevent herself from being pushed aside when like Queen Catherine, she could not give the king a son. We all know the hard lesson she learned from it.

But The Other Boleyn Girl isn’t told through her eyes, it’s told through the eyes of her sister, Mary Boleyn, a woman I’d never heard of; in reality, a woman of little consequence, who around the age of fourteen, returned to England from the French court and caught the eye of the King of England. At the urging of her family, she became his mistress and bore the king two children.

The next fifteen years follow the three Boleyn siblings: Mary, Anne, and George, and their trading of affections with each other, and between the two sisters, with King Henry himself. Anne and Mary’s relationship is depicted more as a one of intense rivalry and duty than of sisterly affection, and in the end I thought the story became more Anne’s than Mary’s, in that the author tried so hard to paint Anne in a bad light, finding cause in every accusation the king used as a justification in executing her.

No one really believes she did all the things he accused her of, yet these became the driving forces of the story, with Mary’s voice becoming very weak for me in the end. Almost invisible. What purpose did she serve exactly, I wondered. Had she learned anything from it all? Was she really secretly happy her sister had died the way she did? Was I as the reader? I wasn’t sure by the end, other than maybe King Henry wasn’t all to blame.

With that aside, I still found the book interesting and readable. The author’s words guided me through the historical narrative effortlessly until I’d read multiple pages without even realizing it. Only for a brief time did I feel some parts a bit too long and tedious, like the seven years King Henry waits to marry Anne. That felt like an eternity – as I’m sure it did for the sexually tormented Henry and his supposed virgin mistress, but other than that the book moved very swiftly for me. Smooth as creamy butter sometimes, and I loved it.

Reading this made me want to watch The Wives of Henry the Eighth on PBS again and learn more about these women and the man who proclaimed himself the God of this Earth, the head of his own church. What a time it must’ve been to live; a time when middle age was thirty years old; a time when death lurked around every corner, if not by the plague or the sweats, then the chopping block. I wonder if Anne really did laugh as she pondered her demise. Knowing what history really says about her, I would say yes. She was that kind of woman. 4 stars


Amanda said...

I just went back and read my review because I couldn't quite remember what I thought about Mary after reading yours. I remembered being bored for the middle third of the book, while Anne's waiting to marry the king, and that I didn't like Anne at all. I seem to remember liking Mary better than Anne, though that could be because I later watched the movie. According to my review, I didn't feel Mary was all that real of a person, that she felt contrived. I seem to recall that now.

I still don't like Anne though. I felt like she was petty and grabbing at money and prideful and selfish.

L said...

I read your review too, it's a good one, and I would agree. I liked Mary better too in this story. I just don't think it's completely accurate, at least what Anne was accused of. I think it very unlikely she had multiple affairs, slept with her brother or practiced witchcraft. I think they were excuses made by a man filled with fear from not yet producing an heir and from his whispering new girlfriend and advisors.

But as far as how she snagged him and led him on, I believe she probably did those things, and did them extremely well. It's generally thought Henry was a handsome, modestly built man before Anne infiltrated his life. He ended their relationship in an extremely large state. I think she did him in with her taunting and he only could find satisfaction and deal with the stress of it through food.

My question, after reading the book, is did Anne deserve it? Why kill her instead of just locking her away for the rest of her life? I don't think he could stand the thought of her still living, knowing how he had lied to convict her. I think he was afraid of her. She made the king of england shake in his boots. Now that's something, whether she was a bitch or not. (And for sure, she was probably a bitch.)

Amanda said...

Oh, yeah, I don't think she did all those things she was accused of either, and I'm not sure if Henry believed she did. I think maybe some part of him did, especially the part about the witchcraft, because he was so superstitious. It was an affair that made him kill the next wife he beheaded, too, so that type of betrayal must have meant a lot to him. Coming from his wives at least. Ironic since he cheated all the time. Maybe he couldn't stand the idea of the women finding someone else more attractive than him, the way he found other women more attractive than his wives.

I read on wikipedia that he most likely developed adult-onset diabetes and that caused a lot of his weight gain. Apparently he had a sister who went through the same thing. It ran in their family. At least that's what they think now.

L said...

I forgot to mention the movie. The only thing I like about it was Eric Bana, everything else was mediocre at best. I can't wait to see him in The Time Traveler's Wife this summer. I think he should always play characters named Henry.

Amanda said...

There's a movie of the Time Traveler's Wife coming out this summer? I'm just starting to read that book.

L said...

In July I think. I can't remember the name of the girl who plays Clare. She was in The Notebook too. Are you liking that book?

Amanda said...

Oh, I've barely started. I don't know yet.