The Other Boleyn Girl
by Philippa Gregory
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Other Boleyn Girl / 0-7432-2744-1
They say that history is written by the victor, and thus do we have two very separate histories for the engaging character of Anne Boleyn. The first history, written immediately after she was cast from power, is that of a cruel, commanding, incestuous witch. The second history, written after the ascent of her powerful daughter Elizabeth, is that of a pious, kind, faithful wife. The truth is most likely located somewhere between these two caricatures, but it's important to note that "The Other Boleyn Girl" is much less interested in finding historical "truth" and much more interested in telling a compelling story.
Make no mistake: this is not history. For the sake of her story, Gregory has taken several major "what if?" questions and has run wildly with them. For instance: What if Anne was an evil and conniving contrast to her sweet and innocent sister Mary? What if Mary's affair with the king had been one of deep love and tenderness, only to be shoved aside when Anne deliberately and cruelly supplanted her? What if Mary's disappointing marriage to a displaced noble was not one of disgrace, but rather a marriage of true love and happiness, in marked contrast to Anne's famously ill-fated marriage? These assumptions are not good history, but they do make for an interesting framing device.
The characters here may be inaccurate, but they are compelling. Henry comes closest to accuracy, with his mercurial moods and petty childishness. We are lead to understand that Henry is a bad monarch because he lacks the self-awareness to realize that the flattery laid upon him by his courtiers are not the truth. Mary is the madonna of the story: sweet, innocent, desirable, spiritually virginal, and with such a bad head for politics that even her lover calls her a 'sweet idiot'. Her incompetence with politics feels largely like a plot device so that matters can be carefully explained to the reader, but the device isn't too awkward. Anne contrasts as the whore of the story; cruel, conniving, vicious, tempestuous, and also surprisingly stupid, despite her ability to lead Henry by the nose for the first part of the novel. It doesn't make sense that she can be fantastically charming prior to marriage and yet descend quickly into a withering shrew afterward, considering the stake she has in keeping her husband happy, but we are lead to believe that the distracted Anne is descending quietly into madness.
The story moves at an enjoyable clip, and the tale of one sister waiting patiently in the wings while another grabs all the glory to her eventual ruin is an old motif but still plays out well here. We worry for Mary; will she find happiness, will she find love, will she escape her family? We fret for Anne, because as hateful as she is here, we hate Henry all the more. While I would have preferred a more historically accurate novel, I still enjoyed this one - you may too, as long as you remember that this is bad history in order to make a good story. A Boleyn "alternate reality", if you will, and nothing more.
~ Ana Mardoll
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