Thursday, July 27, 2017

Book Review: The Other Boleyn Girl

A Fair Trade Book

(Fair disclosure: What I physically have is the older, smaller paperback edition.)

Title: The Other Boleyn Girl

Author: Philippa Gregory

Author's web site:

Date: 2001

Publisher: Harper Collins

ISBN: 978-1-4165-5653-4

Length: 735 pages

Quote: “My dear Mary Carey's sister has come to join our company. This is Anne Boleyn.”

If the stereotype of the sweet blonde-haired sister and the tough, shrewd black-haired sister hadn't been so old already, it might have been based on the history of Mary Boleyn-Carey-Stafford and Anne Boleyn-Tudor.

Both were considered beauties in their day, despite evidence that neither really looked like anyone likely to be cast in a Hollywood movie. 

Natalie Portman as Anne, Scarlett Johansen as Mary...cute, but not what the Boleyn sisters actually looked like.

Anne boleyn.jpg
The most controversial face in sixteenth-century England...either the portrait has faded, or it's been mislabelled for all these years, or Anne Boleyn's hair was only really "black" or even "dark" by contrast with her sister Mary's blonde hair...or because those adjectives had murky connotations. If that dress be black, that hair is brown.

Mary Boleyn.jpg
And this was Mary, according to Wikipedia and the British Museum...if you're thinking "Little Dutch Girl," yes, the Boleyns had Dutch connections.

In addition to having "black" hair, Anne was also described as “sallow” and “swarthy,” but what really seemed to bother people about her was her extra finger. The superstitious English didn't even recognize this as the effects of a gene most commonly found in Africa. They thought it might have been a “devil's mark” identifying Anne as a wicked witch. She did much to promote a fad for extremely long sleeves that hid the fingers.

Mary was content to be a “king's leman,” in older usage, or “mistress” in the newer style. In feudal Europe, the king and his noble attendants were supposed to be Christians, each married to one wife, but any noble lord selected for the favor was supposed to feel honored if the king commandeered his wife as a sort of unofficial secondary wife of the king. By way of compensation the husbands often received gifts and promotions--especially to positions a nice long way from the royal court. Such (un-Christian) intimacies were sure to move the family higher up the status hierarchy, especially if the queen didn't have a son and the king's leman did.

Thus, politics in Merrie Olde Englande were not a matter of communication between the rulers and the ruled about policies, but a squalid mess of personal gossip, reminiscent of recent political correspondence received by this web site...urgh, don't get me started, and thanks again to Congressman Griffith for showing us a way out of that muck. The royal family themselves were usually rich, famous, and admired—by way of reward for living the lives of pedigreed livestock.

Mary might or might not have loved William Carey, to whom she was married at fourteen. Their ambitious relatives wanted to breed those young people for their pedigrees alone. Then she caught Henry VIII's eye. She might or might not have been attracted to him. That made no difference. It was her duty to her family to seduce him if she could, again for his title and pedigree alone. Her children were generally thought to be his, partly because Henry had enough respect for Carey's feelings to make sure Carey travelled a lot while Mary stayed close to the royal residence. If Mary didn't like being used this way, plenty of other women were willing to take her place.

One of them, urged on by family members, was Anne. Bolder than any medieval English lady had ever been before, she wasn't content to be merely a sexual convenience for Henry. She wanted to be Queen of England. She offered Henry only safe sex unless and until she became his wife. So she did. A lot of influential figures in the church and state had to be pushed out of the way before Henry could marry Anne. Elders are supposed to be old, but a few of the deaths were untimely enough that some suspected poison.

Anne got her royal wedding and paid the price for it. Raising her own individual status disturbed the system that gave other women what status they had in feudal society; as the poster girl for no-fault divorce Anne was deeply hated. She gave Henry a daughter who turned out to be a better leader and protector for England than any number of sons might have been, and even inherited Henry's red-blond hair. That wasn't enough for Anne, for Henry, or for their greedy relatives. Anne had to have a son.

What sort of son did she have, anyway? Records aren't clear. He was born prematurely and dead; nobody wanted to paint any portraits. Aghast at the idea that such a son could be his, Henry accused Anne of committing adultery with every man she might possibly have seen that year, including her brother George Boleyn, and of witchcraft. The European aristocracy was already so inbred that the consequences of Anne's having a baby with any of the courtiers might have been as ghastly, in genetic terms, as if she'd had one with her brother. Gregory describes the poor little “monster” as having both spina bifida and hydrocephaly. Spina bifida still occasionally pops up in descendants of Anne's relatives today; it's one of those diseases that are caused by inheriting on both sides a gene that, when inherited on only one side, boosts immunity to other diseases. It could easily have been what caused Anne's self-aborted son to be described as a monster. It seems to be caused by a different gene than the one for polydactylism.

Well...everyone knows how the story ends, but some readers consider Gregory's version a regular page-turner anyway. We know Anne's for the chop. We may wonder at what point in the story she gets it, but what we're reading for has to be the romance Gregory spins for Mary and her second official husband, William Stafford. Stafford was a commoner, though successful enough to have worked for the king and met Mary at court. What is known about his relationship with Mary is that she married “for love, this time.” So there may have been a real romance as juicy as the fictional one in this novel.

Relatively little is known about George Boleyn but it must be mentioned that his fictional role in this novel is likely to have generated much of the publicity the movie versions received. Gregory, following up on one recent and speculative historical study, casts him not just as unhappily married for money (which happened to young men as regularly as it did to young women) but as a fairly overt homosexual, “gay” but not effeminate. Her portrait of George, not as the stereotypical woman-hating English homosexual but as a rarer type who just might have been infatuated with his sister, fits strangely but not altogether implausibly into the historical record. There's no solid evidence that George was homosexual, though he was accused of that, and incest and satanism and treason and anything else anyone could think of. Whenever a man scrupled to attack either of the Boleyn girls, he hurled an accusation at their brother. Most historians imagine that only a few of the accusations could have been grounded; they don't agree about which few those were.

Although Philippa Gregory hardly needs a dollar from this web site (and cheers to her for that), our policy is to encourage living authors by sending them ten percent of the price of any secondhand books this web site sells online. So, when you buy The Other Boleyn Girl here, you send $5 per book plus $5 per package plus $1 per online payment to this web site, and we send $1 to Gregory or a charity of her choice. That "per package" business means "as many books as we can cram into a package"; I'm not sure whether the Post Office has a package the right shape to hold all six of Gregory's Tudor novels, but if it'll accept the publisher's packaging, I'll send you the six-book set for $35 (postal money order to P.O. Box 322) or $36 (Paypal payment to the address you get by e-mailing salolianigodagewi), and from that Gregory or her charity would get $6. That would be a lot of lively reading, but you should know that Goodreads online readers rate Gregory high and have boosted The Other Boleyn Girl up there with Gone with the Wind, ahead of The Good Earth, ahead of Jubilee, ahead of The Name of the Rose...if your tastes are typical of those who read both historical novels and the Internet, you'd probably enjoy the whole set of Tudor novels.