Title: The Other Boleyn Girl
Author: Philippa Gregory
My Rating: ★★★1/2
Summary: “A rich and compelling novel of love, sex, ambition, and intrigue, The Other Boleyn Girl introduces a woman of extraordinary determination and desire who lived at the heart of the most glamorous court in Europe and survived by following her heart.
When Mary Boleyn comes to court as an innocent girl of fourteen, she catches the eye of Henry VIII. Dazzled, Mary falls in love with both her golden prince and her growing role as unofficial queen. However, she soon realizes just how much she is a pawn in her family’s ambitious plots as the king’s interest begins to wane and she is forced to step aside for her best friend and rival: her sister, Anne. Then Mary knows that she must defy her family and her king and take her fate into her own hands.”
On the very first page, Mary watches someone she knows get beheaded, which certainly drew me into the story. I continued to be interested the whole way through the book, which is saying something, since I went into the book knowing what would happen. The perspective also made the story interesting to read. Writing from the viewpoint of a woman, especially someone so often forgotten about made a well known piece of history feel new.
Gregory does a great job of giving readers a feel for what life at court was like without it feeling repetitive. While Mary and Anne Boleyn’s lives were crazy in many ways, life at court could potentially become repetitive to read about. She also did this well in Three Sisters, Three Queens, which I read last spring.
Gregory also clearly shows the complete lack of agency both Mary and Anne had in their lives, particularly when it comes to their relationships with Henry. Mary gets told exactly what to do to charm Henry, down to when she should sleep with him.
Now that I’ve addressed what Gregory did well, I need to discuss the big problem I have with this novel. (Hence the 3.5 stars). Before I say anything, I will acknowledge that this book is from 2001. However, The Other Boleyn Girl is still a popular read for historical fiction about the Tudors, so I think criticizing it is fair.
I found the portrayal of Anne as well as Mary and Anne’s relationship to be sexist. As a character in general, Anne is pretty one-dimensional. Obviously, the novel being from Mary’s perspective, the readers miss Anne’s inner thoughts. Still, Mary was her sister, so it’s safe to assume she would know the real Anne Boleyn better than most. But even with those closest to her, Anne is really mean, heartless and calculated. So basically, the sexist, simplified caricature the public already has of her as a historical figure. This portrayal surprised me somewhat, given that the book was written by a woman known as a feminist and interested in championing the stories of women from history.
Gregory does give Anne a good amount of agency, which I could appreciate, even if mostly involved her being mean to Mary constantly. She is shown to help her family strategize how Mary should keep Henry interested in her. She is really the only woman who talks about wanting autonomy and is shown to be ambitious. But again, she is a w f u l. Having the only woman with ambition being extremely unlikable and then be beheaded seems a bit sexist to me.
An example of other media that gave Anne agency in a much more positive way is The Tudors, a TV series. Anne is shown encouraging Henry to read writings by Martin Luther, giving her a direct and important role in the Reformation. I only include this to show that there are other ways to show Anne’s ambition in a way that shows her intellect, rather than her being manipulative and mean.
Mary and Anne’s relationship and different experiences with Henry and at court also bother me for similar reasons. The focus on Mary and Anne’s rivalry and Anne “stealing” Henry from Mary feels sexist and oversimplified. Sure, they are both shown to be pawns in their family’s plan, but there is also a focus on Mary and Anne fighting over the fact that Henry has been with both of them, during the same time. (This takes place earlier in the story, but still). This somewhat turns a complex game in order to grab power into an oversimplified rivalry between two girls in love with the same man. By focusing on their anger towards each other, Gregory turns Anne into the villain rather than, oh, I don’t know, maybe the guy who cut his wife’s head off??!? (Actually, more than one, but Katherine Howard comes along much later).
Additionally, Mary is shown to be apprehensive and uncomfortable with her role of sleeping with the king at the beginning, and remains the kind, sweet girl throughout the novel. Anne is more comfortable in her role from the get-go, and more matter-of-fact about what she needs to do for her family. This means the plot is essentially one of a sweet girl forced into a bad situation who ends in a happy, loving marriage. But the more ambitious, smart girl gets punished. Of course, Anne would die at the end, but if she was more complex, not just a calculated seductress, this inevitable end would feel less like the classic story of a woman rightfully punished for being intelligent and having ambition.
While I still really enjoyed reading The Other Boleyn Girl, I found the portrayal of Anne to be a big letdown. However, I loved reading from Mary’s perspective and getting into the mindset of what it must have been like to be in her position. I would maybe still recommend this book, because I did really like reading about Mary, but it was also so frustrating to read.
I decided to pick songs that fit lyrically with the novel and then put them in order of what happened. Of course, none of them fit perfectly, except for the song from Six, but I tried. I had a lot of fun making this one 🙂
- Doll Parts – Hole
- Young God – Halsey
- Don’t Lose Ur Head (feat. Christina Modestou) – Six Soundtrack
- What Kind of Man – Florence + the Machine
- How F*****g Dare You – Lauren Tate
- Falling – Florence + the Machine
- Heavy Is the Head (feat. Chris Cornell) – Zac Brown Band
- Angel on Fire – Halsey
You can listen to it here 👑
Thank you for reading this feminist rant disguised as a book review 💚