“’I was born to be your rival,’ she said simply. ‘And you mine. We’re sisters, aren’t we?’” -Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl
It’s time for our very first Read This! blog! Today’s topic is my favorite book of all time, Philippa Gregory‘s The Other Boleyn Girl. If you’re already familiar with Tudor era England, you’re probably already familiar with the story of Anne Boleyn. (Check our her Wikipedia page if you aren’t. She’s fascinating.) But what you’re probably not familiar with is the story of her sister, Mary Boleyn. The following sections do contain spoilers, but it’s a historical novel so…
The story begins centered around our three heroes: Mary, Anne, and their older brother, George. It seems that under other circumstances, the three of them would lead normal, happy lives. Unfortunately, the siblings belong to the house of Howard, one of the most prominent families in the kingdom. As such, the three are constantly used like livestock by family members to elevate the family name. Obviously, this would cause a lot of problems in the emotional development of the siblings. As the three grow up, Mary is married off at 13, then is taken from her husband and forced to sleep with the king, Anne grows up to be evil and vindictive, and George’s sexuality is all over the place.
Mary is the king’s mistress first and has two children by him. But he has a short attention span and is soon enchanted by Anne. And as history tells us, Henry VIII divorces his wife on the grounds that their marriage was never valid in the first place, all so he can marry Anne and get sons off of her. Anne rises to the top with George’s help and everyone at court quickly begins to forget about Mary. She quietly fades into the woodwork, eventually finding love and abandoning her family’s house and life at court in favor of living a quiet life in the country. This is one of my favorite passages:
“I suddenly realized that George was wrong, and my family was wrong, and that I had been wrong—for all my life. I was not a Howard before anything else. Before anything else I was a woman who was capable of passion and who had a great need and a great desire for love. I didn’t want the rewards for which Anne had surrendered her youth. I didn’t want the arid glamour of George’s life. I wanted the heat and the sweat and the passion of a man that I could love and trust. And I wanted to give myself to him: not for advantage, but for desire.” -Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl
And as we know from a historical standpoint, Mary’s choice probably saved her life. The novel eventually concludes with George and Anne’s executions, and Mary living out the rest of her life in the countryside with her new husband and children.
The novel’s main conflict is clearly the sexual rivalry between Mary and Anne as they both try to seduce the king, and everyone always forgets about poor George and his problems (he is my favorite character by leaps and bounds so I’m pretty biased here). His parents force him to marry a terrible woman that he doesn’t love and he also develops feelings and a sexual relationship with his best friend, Francis. When George tries to talk about his love for another man, his sisters shut him up and tell him not to talk about it. And then of course, there is the issue of George and Anne’s relationship.
Incest is nearly always taboo, no matter what the setting. But there is undeniably chemistry between George and Anne throughout the novel and it’s so fascinating. The story is told in first person through Mary’s innocent eyes. We as readers can see what is going on, but Mary does not. When the siblings are grown, there are instances that are wildly inappropriate between brother and sister, such as a time when George casually walks in while Anne is undressing and another time where he kisses her seductively on the mouth and she responds in turn. And there is the question of the paternity of Anne’s monster child. After Anne gives birth to her daughter, Elizabeth, she suffers several miscarriages. Unwilling to confess to the king that she lost another child, Anne confides to Mary that she will conceive another child no matter what the cost. She eventually does, and gives birth to a stillborn deformed “monster” child. Readers are not specifically told what Anne did in order to conceive the child, but the glances and embraces between she and George suggest something more. Though in reality, historians agree that the accusations of incest between the two were outlandish rumors spouted from the mouths of Boleyn enemies, this is ultimately their downfall in this novel.
The Other Boleyn Girl is one fictionalized account of the Boleyn family. There are tons of stories out there about this family, but I think one of the reasons that this book is so unique is because of the light in which it portrays Anne. Very few works actually depict her as so sinister.
Okay, let’s be honest. Philippa Gregory probably took a lot of liberties with this story. Historically speaking, there is no actual evidence that Henry VIII fathered either of Mary’s children. But we do that he was a notorious womanizer and publicly acknowledged one of his bastards. And in 1500s England, if the king wants you in his bed, who are you to say no? Whether or not this account is mostly fiction, it’s still a good story. The 2008 film was so-so, but I would definitely recommend watching it after you read the book.