Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory

My book group has chosen this book for our February meeting, and I've already finished it. I had actually read it about two years ago, but the REAL reason I'm already through it is that my dear sweetie got me an iPod for Christmas, AND an Audible.com account. I didn't read The Other Boleyn Girl, I had it read to me.

Being read to is a great delight, although it goes much slower than I am able to go myself. The balance comes from all the times I can't be looking at a book, but can listen: in the car, walking the dog, shopping, cleaning the kitchen and making dinner... But this is not a review of audiobooks, its about this particular book.

The Other Boleyn Girl is the story of Mary Boleyn, sister to the fated Anne, and also a mistress to Henry VIII during his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Philippa Gregory takes what facts are known about Mary and Anne, and weaves a compelling story of the rise and fall of the Boleyn family. The book is fairly melodramatic, with loads of sex, betrayal, plotting, jostling for position, and some more sex. Nevertheless, there are some elements which feel absolutely accurate and believable:

Henry's seduction of Mary. Mary was very young when she became Henry's mistress; the book suggests she was about 14. She had already been married to a member of the king's train, but when Henry noticed her, her family pushed her forward and was rewarded with lands and commissions and titles. Gregory deftly presents the young girl's response: as a twelve year old wife, sex was something her husband did but she didn't understand. Dancing with Henry at a masque, his seductive banter made her breathless. Hell, if I had been fourteen, dancing with such a handsome man, who was king besides, I'd have totally fallen for him too.

Anne's character. Gregory gives us an Anne Boleyn who prided herself on being different, on standing out. Upon her arrival in the English court, Anne announces that she intends to be different--that every woman needs something to stand out from the crowd. Anne plans to be French--her dress, her headwear, her style.
This continues into her relationship with Henry, as she continues to provoke his interest with her contrast to his dutiful wife. Anne knows her fascination must continue to hold the king's interest, but the length of time it takes between his interest and their marriage means she must be fascinating and unreachable for five or six years. She did not dare lose him before marriage, as that would be the end of her ability to provide for herself, but once married, the toll of those years made her quick-tempered and screechy. Gregory makes the point that such a passionate woman is tempting to a passionate man, but that as Henry aged and weakened, her passion became wearying.

Fear and tyranny. In the course of trying Anne for adultery, incest, witchcraft and treason, it became apparent that in throwing off Rome, England had almost no protection from its ruler. There was no pope, no clergy, no check on Henry's claims that his wants were also God's will. Increasingly, the consequences of Anne's "success" come to appear horrible. If as good a woman as Katherine could be set aside, then no marriage was secure. If Henry were both the head of state and the head of the church, then he became the ultimate arbiter of what was treason and what was punishable by death. Before Anne's rise, it was treason to say out loud that Henry could not father a son. After Anne's fall, it became treason to even think it. And Henry was the judge of whether someone had so thought. What a convenient way to get rid of anyone who did not agree with anything the king wanted.

The enervation of court life. The court was the site of masques and dances and tournaments and feasts...for year after wearying year. As the years at court accumulate, the Boleyns all are visibly tired of keeping up the pace of unending, forced gaiety. Anne, burdened with her precarious position and the increasing physical toll of pregnancy, has to physically work harder as queen than ever before. George becomes less careful about his homosexuality, as it's just so much work, and he is feeling less and less that the struggle for position is providing him anything.

The headstrong King Henry. Crowned at age 18, Henry had been king for 27 years by the time Anne Boleyn was executed. He ruled a stable country with surplus money in the treasury, and was able to indulge his interests, leaving the work to Wolsey. The result Gregory portrays is a spoiled and pampered man, who has been flattered his entire life and as a result cannot understand why the one thing he needs--a son--has not been granted him. After all, he got everything else he wanted. Why not this? This is the sort of man who would take the huge step of breaking with the Pope to get what he wanted--and would continue discarding wives in the search for a son.

In both the book, and in real life, Mary Boleyn escapes court life entirely, living on a small estate in Kent with her "nobody" husband. She has two or three children, and her descendants themselves end up as leading families of the country. They are not "Boleyns," which may just be to their advantage as they are not flashpoints for controversy. Mary's daughter Catherine marries a courtier, and ultimately dies at Hampton Court Palace and is buried at Westminster Abbey--quite an honor. Catherine's daughter Lettice marries the first Earl of Essex, and is the mother of the second Earl of Essex, one of Elizabeth's greatest favorites. Lettice's second husband is Elizabeth's rejected suitor (but still a favorite of hers), Robert Dudley, Lord Leicester. Lettice is a great beauty, and extremely wealthy and considered a rival of Elizabeth's. Interestingly, Lettice lives to be incredibly old--95, well into the second Stuart monarchy.

I have picked up a couple of other Philippa Gregory Tudor-era novels, but didn't enjoy them as much as I did this one. Even so, when we went to London almost two years ago now, we found ourselves on our first day walking across the Tower Bridge, and right there, on the north end, was THE Tower of London, and one of the first features I saw was the "Traitor's Gate." I got goosebumps as the reality of these people and their lives swept over me. After 400+ years, it's easy to think of these people as fictional characters. But the events are true, and the buildings and gates and halls these people walked are still standing. It made it all startlingly current!

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