Sep 24, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

Told from the point of view of Mary Boleyn, The Other Boleyn Girl tells the story of Anne Boleyn’s ascension and eventual downfall. Anne Boleyn was the second of Henry VIII’s six wives. It was to marry her that the king put aside his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and act that led to his excommunication by the Pope and to the beginning of Anglicanism. But Anne Boleyn didn’t stay in the King’s good graces for long. Like her predecessor, she failed to give birth to a male heir, and only three years after her marriage she was accused of witchcraft and adultery and executed.

But more than Anne’s story, this is Mary’s. Philippa Gregory reimagines what her life must have been like, and paints a very compelling picture full of sibling rivalry, difficult choices, divided loyalties, sacrifices, schemes, fear, desire, and love.

The Other Boleyn Girl was different from what I’d imagined. The book doesn’t explore the implication of Henry VIII breaking off with the Pope, nor the possible political motivations behind Anne Boleyn’s downfall. It only took me a few chapters to realize that this wasn’t going to be that kind of book. But I’m perfectly fine with that. Above all, The Other Boleyn Girl is a personal story. It attempts to answer a simple question: what did it feel like? And that’s exactly what makes it such a compelling book, a book that makes history come alive so effectively. Philippa Gregory guesses what people’s desires, feelings and motivations might have been, and she does so very convincingly.

The Other Boleyn Girl makes me very glad to have been born in the twentieth century. Our time is far from perfect, but I was fortunate enough to have been born in a time and place where it’s mostly safe to be a woman, even if there’s still a lot to strive for. At a time when miscarriages and deformed children were taken as a sign that the mother was guilty of some grave sin, there was pressure over any woman to give birth to a healthy (and preferable male) child. But imagine the pressure over a queen whose worth (and in this case, whose life) depended on her ability to produce an heir.

Anne Boleyn is portrayed as selfish, cold-hearted and manipulative. The schemes and intrigues that go on in Henry VIII's court are horrifying. Yet despite everything, in the end I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. There weren’t many choices available for women back then. She was ambitious and cruel, yes, but she was manipulated by her own family from a young age, and there wasn’t much else that she'd have been allowed to become.

Which brings me to Mary, the simpler Boleyn sister. I sympathized with her from the start, not only because this is her story but also because she’s much kinder than any other member of her family. There’s also the fact that her desire to determine the course of her own life and to marry for love rather than for convenience is easy to understand – almost too easy for a modern woman to understand.

As much as I enjoyed this story, I found myself wondering how believable this portrayal of Mary Boleyn is. The culture and the social arrangements of a certain time period not only shape the lives of people, but also their mentalities – or, more accurately, they reflect their mentalities. At a time when men ruled society completely, it’s difficult to imagine what women must have thought. It seems reasonable to assume, though, that most of them interiorized what they were educated to believe. So I wonder how likely it was that a woman in Mary’s position would think the way she thinks. On the other hand, whatever the time period there are always women, and men, whose views are ahead of their time, so there probably were woman who thought and felt what Mary Boleyn did. And the way we see her reach a point where she was able to make her own decisions is perfectly convincing.

I’ve noticed that there’s some controversy about Philippa Gregory’s accuracy, but for me none of this makes The Other Boleyn Girl a weaker or less enjoyable book. If anything it’s the opposite, because having a character I could sympathize with so fully helped pull me into the story. This book is well written and very gripping, and it feels much shorter than its 540 pages (and my copy is a paperback with tiny print). Also, reading this made me realize just how much I miss historical fiction. I must read more of it next year. And I will certainly be reading more Philippa Gregory in the future.

Other Blog Reviews:
books i done read
Melody's Reading Corner
Trish's Reading Nook
So Many Books, So Little Time
The Written Word
Book Nut
The Hidden Side of a Leaf
Musings of a Bookish Kitten
Care's Online Bookclub
Peeking Between the Pages
Age 30 - A Lifetime of Books
Some Reads
Library Queue
Fyrefly's Book Blog
Desert Rose Booklogue

(Let me know if I missed yours)


  1. I agree. She wasn't trying to be totally historically accurate, she was trying to write a great novel. And, I thought she did a good job too.

  2. Great review, Nymeth! I really enjoyed this book; and like you I really sympathized Mary from the beginning. I was like seething with fury whenever I read what Anne had done to secure her position... Philippa Gregory had really done a good job in writing a gripping story in this, whether or not if it is historically accurate. I'll be looking forward to reading more of her books in future. :)

  3. I have yet to read any Philippa Gregory books. I've picked up a couple of books secondhand. Maybe in 2009.

  4. Great review! I agree that it flies by much quicker than the length would lead you to expect. My review (from about a year ago) is here.

  5. I read one of Philippa Gregory's books and she's just not my type of author. However, I totally agree with the way your post opened: every time I read historical fiction, I thank God that I live now!

  6. I totally agree with you that the accuracy issue did not detract from my enjoyment of the book. Did you feel the need to do a little research on Mary or Anne? As I was reading it, I kept stopping to get on the internet and find out some more of the Tudor history.

  7. I feel like I should re-read this before I watch the movie and read the other books in this "series". I remember the major bits and pieces from it though. Great review!!!

  8. I really liked this book by her and then it all went downhill from there... I haven't heard of a person yet that likes her new book, actually...

  9. A nice and thoughtful review. I've always wanted to read something by Gregory, but especially since the movie I keep finding myself resisting the lure.

  10. Hi Ana,
    I read this book a while ago and liked it a lot.
    These past few days to distract myself I watched on my laptop the 10 episods of the 2nd season of THE TUDORS. A series which airs on cable in the US on Showtime. The 2nd season is about Anne Boleyn and is so well made, I had to cover my eyes to the sight of her blood or gore just very good acting.
    Are you able to view this series in Portugal? If it ever does, DO watch's great.
    A nice evening to you Ana :}

  11. I keep meaning to read this! Have you seen the movie? I want to read the book before I see it.

    Have you read anything else by Gregory? I've read a few of her books and liked them all. I always wonder about these "advanced" female characters in historical fiction books too. It is pretty unrealistic because few women were really like that then. In most books the main female character is rebellious because it would be boring to read about a woman who didn't question the injustice of her society at that time! We wouldn't relate to her at all.

  12. Tricia, thank you for your link. Like you, I avoided refreshing my memory about this historical period while reading it because I wanted at least a few things to be surprises.

    Melody: Anne did so many infuriating things. But by the end I couldn't help but pity her. And yes, I really think she knows how to tell a story.

    Natasha, I hope you enjoy them!

    Fyrefly: It really does. Thanks for your link!

    Eva, I'm glad you agree! I've been called naive for saying this, but I wouldn't trade this time period for any other. People tell me "but there's been more mass killing in the 20th century than ever before", and that's certainly truth, but it's because humankind lacked the technology for mass killing before, not because they had scruples about it. And of course a lot of horrible things still happen, but there's much more awareness now that human rights should be respected.

    Laura: There were things I didn't remember and wanted to look up, but I waited until I was done because I wanted the book to surprise me some! But I did quite a bit of reading once I was done with it.

    Ladytink: Thanks! I haven't watched the movie yet, but I want to now that I've read it.

    Kailana: Do you mean The Boleyn Inheritance or a more recent one? Anyway, that's too bad, I was really looking forward to more books as engaging as this.

    bookchronicle: I know how you feel, sometimes having anyone telling me a certain book is a must read makes me resist it stubbornly. I'm glad I read this one, though!

    Madeleine: I've heard of that series before, and I'm almost sure that it shows here in one of the cable channels. Now I just need to find out which! Thanks for the recommendation. I'm definitely in the mood for more Tudor stories after this.

    Andrea: I haven't, because like you I wanted to read it first. But now I will. This was my first Gregory. Which one would you recommend next? And yes, I think that's the reason why some authors choose to modernize their protagonists. And in a way it works, but it does make the story more unrealistic.

  13. I am so glad you enjoyed this novel. I don't see why people are making such a fus about any inaccuracies, the book is clearly labelled as fiction and displayed in the fiction section, not in the history section. I thought it was an interesting take on a tale that is so famous and it added a whole new element. I hope to read The Boleyn Inheritance before the end of the year if I have time and am looking forward to her new novel The Other Queen coming out in paperback.

  14. I saw the movie this past spring and enjoyed it. Like you too, I found the choices for women were limited back then, and I felt so sorry for both girls. I still have to read the book, which is on my to-buy list. I'm glad you make the point that this is historical fiction, and not pure history. Something has happened to our ability to let someone recreate a time period, everyone wants it to be fact. It's like we've forgotten that we only ever knew anything through stories and reconstruction anyway! i do wish that we had something of Mary's to show what she was really like; it seems to me that it's too easy to paint her the sweet one now, and Anne the selfish, cold-hearted one, when we only have historical facts to go on about Anne. I have to admit I have always admired her - not for her affairs, but because she tried to be a queen. I've been watching The Tudors here too, we're just about to start Season 2. It's been very good, and again shows the political intrigues, but especially, how life rested on one man's whims.
    By the way, Sir Thomas Wyatt's poem 'Whoso List to Hunt' is a veiled reference to his affair with Anne Boleyn. I like this poem alot, although Anne doesn't come off so well. It's here:

  15. This is interesting! I have just watched the movie on DVD starring Natalie Portman as Anne, Scarlett Johannson as Mary but never noticed it was based on a book :)

    Hope that I can easily find a copy of this book - would love to read it!

    I'm thankful too I'm NOT born in that day and age. The "dungeon" they kept Mary for bedrest was truly horrible in the movie.

  16. Hi Nymeth, great review! I've placed an order for this book together with Gossamer and hope to get to it soon. :)

  17. Even though it sounds like this might have been a less than thrilling read for you, I'm glad you enjoyed it. This time period has always been extremely fascinating to me and I enjoyed reading the portrayal of the sisters--whether or not the author took large liberties or not (which I think is to be expected at least to some degree with historical fiction?). So...will you be reading any of her others? I have a few on the shelf but haven't felt too compelled to pick them up yet.

  18. Rhinoa: Yes, sometimes people are way too picky about those things. I look forward to your thoughts on those two books!

    Susan: I don't know why some readers are so reluctant to allow authors imaginative freedoms, really. I guess this is the same phenomenon that is behind the dismissal of fantasy as silly and irrelevant because it's "not real". Ah well, to witch their own. I wonder what Mary and Anne really were like too. But this recreation could hardly have been more satisfying. I'll have to watch the movie version of this and also The Tudor. And thank you for the link to the poem!

    Kittycat: I hope you manage to find a copy of the book! And I know what you mean about the "dungeon".

    Alice, I hope you enjoy them both!

    Trish: I wouldn't call it a new favourite of mine or anything, but it wasn't less than thrilling either - I really did enjoy it a lot! I didn't want to give the impression I was picking on the lack of accuracy. I really understand why an author would choose a protagonist that modern readers can relate to, and I think it's an effective storytelling device. And yes, I definitely plan on reading more of her books. Not soon, though, because they're all huge and I need a break from chunksters :P

  19. I've been wanting to read this one for so long. I like how Philippa Gregory writes, I enjoyed The Constant Princess.
    Great review.

  20. I haven't read anything by Philippa Gregory yet, and I haven't seen the movie. I don't think it would bother me if the author didn't get all the facts straight, as it is classified as historical fiction. Great review!


  21. You write such great reviews Nymeth. Thanks for linking mine, I will do the same with yours. I agree that I am glad to be a woman now then back then. I also felt sorry for Anne-yes she was cruel but like you said, I think that was instilled in her from young. Although Mary wasn't like that. All in all, I loved the book and I love Gregory's writing.

  22. Naida, I'll have to look for that one. And thank you!

    Anna, thank you! And yes, I agree.

    Dar, thank you, I'll really glad you enjoy my review! This was a great read, wasn't it?

  23. I loved the book-I want to read The Boleyn Inheritance next-have you read that one yet-not sure?

    Have you ventured to watch the movie Nymeth? I did not enjoy it too much but I sure am looking forward to The Tudors starting this week.

  24. I haven't yet, but I plan to. I've seen mixed reviews of the movie. Some people really enjoyed it, it seems, others not so much. I'm sure that the movie won't be able to capture even half of the detail the book has, and while that's natural enough I know I'll miss it. And I have trouble picturing Natalie Portman as Anne. I really like her as an actress, but the roles where I remember her the most are all of very likeable characters.

  25. I enjoyed this one, but not quite as much as so many others. I think I expected too much from it--that it would be richer in history. I do hope to read more by the author someday.

  26. I also liked this one, except I thought the middle was a little tedious. Review here.

  27. From what I understand, the reason people make a "big deal" about the inaccuracies is that Gregory insists everything in the book is historically accurate and that the only fictionalization is in the characters' thoughts and feelings.


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