I feel my love for Anne Boleyn really deserves a post of it’s own, well, I say love maybe that’s not quite the best way of putting it, my intense interest and not so secret admiration for Anne Boleyn deserves a post of it’s own. There’s not one particular thing it is about Henry VIII’s second wife that intrigues me so much but everything from her rising mistress reputation to the accusations of witchcraft, adultery and incest leading to her ultimate demise is just so gripping.
I’ve been a history nerd since I was a child and growing up Terry Deary’s ‘Horrible Histories’ were my go-to books. I remember the first one I ever had was a copy of The Terrible Tudors (followed by the Slimy Stuarts in true chronological order!) I even subscribed to the Horrible Histories magazine and still have all 80 issues upstairs in the attic as well as about 100 timelines, 20 family trees and goodness knows how many collectible cards!
Bearing this in mind it’s a crime that only now have I read Philippa Gregory’s highly acclaimed and popular ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’. To make matters worse a copy of the book has been sitting in one of our bookcases for years! My mother first read the book roughly around the time it was released and has on many occasions recommended it to me but for whatever reason I never picked it up.
For the record my mother’s recommendations are top notch so I had no reason not to take up her offer and borrow her book, here’s just a tiny list of some of her top suggestions:
- The Secret History by Donna Tartt (quite possibly my favourite book)
- The Island by Victoria Hislop (a book that so often gets labelled a ‘beach read’ or ‘holiday lit’ which does it such a disservice)
- The Potter’s House – Rosie Thomas
- Chocolat – Joanne Harris
- The Clan of the Cave Bear – Jean M Auel (another absolute favourite!)
- The Golden Door – Kerry Jaimeson
- The Book Thief – Markus Zuzak
The list is endless really.
Maybe I was apprehensive about reading historical fiction which I’ve found over the years can be a bit of a hit and miss, or maybe it was the title and blurb – the other Boleyn girl, this would be all about Mary Boleyn Anne’s sister that history forgot right? I suppose I just didn’t expect it to be all that good, and over 500 pages of average is a big commitment.
The Other Boleyn girl is one of the best historical fiction novels I’ve read, it’s one of the best fictional novels I’ve read! This book is laced with intrigue, scandal and brilliant amount of old fashioned bitching and makes for such an enjoyable read. The setting, Tudor England and the court of Henry VIII can so easily be dry and predictable and although we know Anne’s fate from the beginning (unless you slept through all your history lessons ever) having Mary as the narrator – a narrator most people, even fans of Tudor history, won’t know an awful lot about – means that the consequences of actions still bear a significant weight.
The story is basically that of Anne Boleyn’s famous rise and fall only it is told from the point of view of her sister Mary who had been the King’s choice of mistress prior to Anne’s arrival on the scene. There’s not a lot more to be said but the complex relationship between the Boleyn girls is a delight. Mary and Anne are sisters but rivals, that song ‘Anything you can do, I can do better’ would be their theme tune, at times the two girls are the giggly, secret sharing sisters everyone wishes they had, at other times they detest each other. It’s fascinating and as someone who really enjoys reading (and writing) about siblings their strained relationship is a real joy to read.
The Boleyn girls are the stars of the book but there are some stellar supporting characters too. George Boleyn their brother is a treat, and without spoiling too much, his relationship with his sisters (in particular Anne) is one that gets more and more dangerous as the story progresses. Katherine of Aragon is a determined and unflappable character whose status as True Queen riles Anne to no limit and is the only character able to draw any kind of emotion other than lust from the King. Henry VIII on the other hand grows more and more loathsome as the book progresses (not to mention more and more fat) doormat, greedy, cruel and revolting are all words that spring to mind. Even Jane Seymour makes a brief appearance towards the end of the novel.
What I loved most about the book apart from the contrast between the siblings were the acid barbs being thrown around. Anne is the ultimate ‘deadpan snarker’ and George, his unbearable wife Jane Parker and even Mary herself are equipped with such witty insults that I found myself gasping and grinning along with the rest of the court.A particular favourite moment of mine has to be when, following her discovery of Jane Seymour perched on Henry’s lap, she gifts Jane’s father with an ornately crafted stool in front of the whole court saying; “It is for your daughter. For Jane. To sit on. She seems not to have a seat of her own but she must borrow mine.”
Jane Seymour bears the brunt of the Boleyn malice, with the much more demure and sweet Mary offering to ‘scratch [her] eyes out’ if she is seen flirting with the King once more. She tells her this whilst in church, mid prayer – it’s brilliant!
Historically speaking the book is strong too, the courts of Henry VIII are well described and you’re never pulled out of the era. Some people will obviously disagree here but all I’ll say is if I wanted to read a 100% accurate account of Mary or Anne Boleyn I would have gone to the non-fiction aisle.
I get the impression in this book that we’re meant to like Mary and sympathise with her and although I did like her I still found myself drawn more and more to the character of Anne, yes, she’s ambitious, yes she’s despicable and yes she puts Mary, the Queen Katherine and her family through some terrible things to get what she wants but despite all that I found myself liking Anne and wanting to see her succeed. The Boleyn siblings and the scenes they all share are the highlights of the novel, but just like in real life the shining Boleyn star in this story is undoubtedly Anne.