The Other Boleyn Girl


Philippa Gregory




Date Reviewed:

October 24, 2009

he Other Boleyn Girl is the story of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry the Eighth (oddly, in the book the king is only called King Henry, "the Eighth" is never appended to his name). But this is indeed the story of the notorious king who had six wives. Much of the tension in the book lies in the fact that the reader knows from the start what Anne Boleyn's ultimate fate is. Just in case the reader is not a student of history, the first chapter opens with the execution by beheading of the Duke of Buckingham.

The title of the book refers to Anne's younger sister, Mary. Both Anne and Mary are at the court of the Tudor king; there is a strong rivalry between the two sisters. Anne is especially ambitious, so when Mary becomes the mistress to King Henry, Anne decides that the only way to out do her sister would be to get the king to marry her. The entire focus of this 670 page novel is Anne's desire to become queen of England.

Although Mary becomes pregnant by King Henry, and ultimately bears him a daughter and a son out of wedlock, Anne Boleyn manages to charm the King into noticing her, so that her sister is cast aside in pursuit of Anne. Officially, the King is married to Queen Katherine at this time, but she has been unable to bear him a son despite twenty years of faithful marriage. There have been pregnancies and miscarriages and babies that died young, only one child of Queen Katherine survives, but that child is a useless female. The King needs a son to be his heir, only a boy is good enough to carry on the dynasty, a princess is not good enough to rule England. Now that Katherine has aged beyond her childbearing years, King Henry eagerly lusts after the willing young women of the court, such as the Boleyn girls, or their rivals, the Seymours.(The irony of this story is that King Henry was followed by a woman, Queen Elizabeth, who proved to be the ablest monarch that England has ever had.)

Despite the length of this book, I was a bit disappointed at how little history appears in this historical novel. Cromwell, Sir Thomas More and starting of the Anglican church receive scant mention. True, the story is narrated by Mary Boleyn, and clearly her focus is on the king's court and Anne's quest to be queen, but surely Mary couldn't have been entirely indifferent to the politics and wars.

I also wish that the history of the Boleyn's had been given more background. Why were they such a powerful family at the court? What titles and lands did they own? What were their goals - beyond the desire for power merely for the sake of more power. Mary and Anne sit in on family counsels where her father and uncle and brother George scheme to enhance the family's position - but what is their ultimate purpose? We are not told.

The novel spends a lot of time detailing the masques and balls of the court; we watch as Anne seduces the king, yet boldly refuses to be his mistresses, telling him outright that he must marry her honestly instead. Such is her allure that the king agrees that he will have his marriage to Katherine annulled. But of course complications arise - Katherine is the daughter of the King of Spain, who is Henry's ally in the war with France. Also, for a marriage to be annulled, the pope must rule in Henry's favor, but why would the pope rule against the interests of the King of Spain?

Despite its length, this book moves smoothly forward. I enjoyed it much more than The Wise Woman, a book by Phillipa Gregory that I could not finish because I loathed the heroine. I see that there are numerous other books about King Henry, including one just released called Wolf Hall that won the Booker Prize. I will have to read more about the Tudors.