Poor Mary Boleyn. That’s all I could think as I read “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory. Being a major history nerd and an even bigger Henry VIII nerd, my mom recommended this book to me to feed into both obsessions. She is a staunch Philippa Gregory fan and raves about her historical fiction a lot, claiming that although it is not 100% accurate, the story is always enchanting. As soon as she told me to read “The Other Boleyn Girl,” I picked it up and could not put it down.
I will admit, you have to love historical fiction in order to love this book. You can probably love it without loving history, but it may be much harder to get into. The book takes place during the Tudor Era (approximately 1500s England) and stays true to the styles and customs of the time. Although it is written in modern day English, the
language is still slightly different, since speech was more formal and the ideas of the time were different. However, there are many more similarities than I believed, which looking on now makes me laugh. Of course people had relationships like those of today, why wouldn’t they? History paints a big, broad picture of a time period, leaving out the topics that it deems wrong, especially when it comes to women. While Mary Boleyn was frowned upon for having an extramarital affair, it was not uncommon. And sex before marriage wasn’t uncommon either, girls just were talented at pretending they were virgins before getting married. Small details like that are different from today’s societal mindset, but people were still people, just wearing corsets and boy-tights.
Philippa Gregory, in my opinion, does a wonderful job at conveying the confusing emotions young Mary goes through. Married at 14 and having an affair with the King of England by age 15, the poor girl is still a child through it all. She is a servant to her father and whichever man she is sleeping with at the time, but Philippa Gregory doesn’t let Mary become dim because of it. That’s just how times were. Her sister on the other hand is utterly rambunctious. Everyone knows Anne Boleyn and her fiery and manipulative personality, but Gregory amplifies it to lay out the path of destruction that she paves for the Boleyn family.
Despite Mary’s young age for most of the beginning, Gregory does an excellent job at letting Mary grow up. The feelings she had as a young girl differ from those at the end of the book, feelings of a young woman who has endured hardships, death, ridicule and being taken advantage of for the sake of the Boleyn family name. Her development throughout the story is prideful, to watch a young, spineless girl turn into a wise, brave woman is the kind of thing I enjoy reading. The emotions she experienced were real emotions that produced real reactions, some juvenile, some frustrating, but in the end, it’s captivating to read how Mary handles the life she is forced to live through a real approach. Not everything is black and white for the Boleyn family, and Mary has to grow up throughout the entirety of the book. It isn’t quick and sometimes she messes up, but in the end, she discovers what she really wants with her life and the journey to get there is worth it.
Mary’s duty to rise the Boleyn family up in the kingdom takes a toll on the young girl. To be ordered around from every male in your family and to have no say would have an impact on everyone, especially those who are not Anne Boleyn. While Mary’s father and uncle caused a lot of Mary’s stress, the major stressor in her life was definitely her sister. From the start, Anne was jealous of Mary for being married first and then chosen by the King to be his mistress. It’s a sisterly feud that Mary time and time again claims was the basis for their relationship, and as the reader watches Anne blatantly walk all over Mary throughout the story, Mary goes back to this one link that keeps them together: their sisterly competition. Because of their sisterhood, they will always love one another, but because of their competition, they will always hate the other, too. This mindset stirs within the reader the more Anne uses her power to destroy Mary after the former steals Henry, for Gregory didn’t write Mary as dumb, but rather an ideal woman of the time; a woman who allows her superiors to dictate her life. Anne is everything a woman should not have been: opinionated, loud, sexual and demanding. She demanded the King’s love and then demanded he reform an entire church to prove it to her. The only brave thing Mary does is marry for love, which follows with a banishment from court due to Anne’s apparent jealousy but what she claims is disobeying the crown. Despite her banishment, she is constantly summoned back for Anne’s comfort during tumultuous times, showing that the feud is alive along with the sisterly companionship.
The relationship between Mary and Anne is one to not be envious of. Anne is cruel and selfish while Mary is kind and loving. Mary cares about the simple things in life, like love, family and farming, while Anne is only concerned with power. These contrasting lifestyles lead to an unhealthy relationship between the sisters and one that Anne abuses once she is crowned Queen of England. Some would believe her sole motive is to make Mary miserable, but I saw through her strong demeanor and only saw a weak woman who is jealous of the simplicity Mary lives by and envies the love that Mary emits and attracts. Anne wants to be everything Mary is, but instead uses her fire to light flames around herself, burning everything in the process. Mary, although fragile at the beginning, grows a tolerance to Anne’s heat, and with her newly thick skin seeks out the life she has always wanted to live: a simple one with her husband and kids on the countryside. While Anne isn’t jealous of the farm life, she is jealous of Mary taking control of her own and finding a pure and healthy love with William, something Anne would never have with Henry.
Gregory includes a lot of fiction in her story, hence why it’s called historical fiction, but it’s not without purpose. There is so much that went on that no one knows about, especially conversations between the family and the King. Gregory uses this to her advantage to create a riveting story that focuses on the other Boleyn girl, sweet Mary. Mary is usually the forgotten of the family, but she no doubt plays an important role in Henry and Anne’s relationship. Gregory also adds a lot of speculations historians have conjured over time (like Mary birthing two of the King’s kids, which I researched and found no proof of), but again, it makes the story more dramatic. And I’m a drama fiend, added to the list of my love for history and Henry VIII (who sucks in this book. Fuck you, Henry).
I would highly recommend this story if you love history, historical fiction or any previous reason I’ve listed throughout. It’s well-written, addicting and produces real-life emotions that is sometimes hard to do in novels with depth, such as this one. You will fall in love with Mary and grow to despise Anne and Henry – if you didn’t already. Gregory did an excellent job with the story and leaves you wondering where Mary will go or what she will do next, surprising you every time as she grows as a person. Character development gets an A from me, as well as the plot. I may be biased with my love for the Tudors, but this book was truly compelling and I would definitely read it again along with others by Philippa Gregory.
Rating: 4/5 Stars