Monday, April 14, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl

Very rarely in my life do I get to use the word opportunistic. But after reading The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillippa Gregory, all I can say is, the courtiers described in this book are the most opportunistic, grabby, ambitious people that might ever have lived. I honestly can't believe that a family would continually put their children's happiness and well-being aside in order to gain power in the court.

This isn't a book you want to pick up lightly. It's 660 pages of deceit, misery, loss, and coercion based upon the story of the very unhappy but ambitious Anne Boleyn as told by her sister Mary. Anything written about the six wives of Henry VII of England has to contain the before and after stories of Henry's continual quest for a son. His first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was a virtuous woman that employed both Boleyn girl as her handmaiden. They lived in her chambers, kept her company, helped her with her tapestry projects, and slept with her husband the king. Katherine looked on as Henry fell in love first with Mary, with whom he had two children, and then the much more ambitious and cruel sister Anne. Mary, who was married herself when her family put her forward as new entertainment for the king, stepped aside as her sister Anne was pushed into the position of his next paramour. Except that Anne refused to sleep with Henry, which drove him mad with desire.

Anne insisted that Henry get rid of Queen Katherine, which led to his request for a dispensation from the Pope in Rome declaring his marriage to Katherine null and void. The Pope took his own sweet time deciding, and years passed with Anne becoming more and more demanding, and Henry more desirous of Anne's obvious charms. By the time the Pope made his decision, Anne was an enemy of the people for usurping Katherine's role. Henry married her anyways, and she went on to conceive a girl child, Elizabeth, who later became the greatest monarch in English history. But girls were of no value to Henry. He only wanted sons. Anne went on to miscarry several times and grew out of favor with the king. Eventually he had her charged with witchcraft and she was beheaded at the Tower of London, but not before Henry had become involved with Jane Seymour, who was to be wife number three.

This book was a real page turner and I very much enjoyed reading it. I love historical novels, especially ones that are both well written and very descriptive of the period in which the story takes place. This book has both. However, it's exceptionally long, and I'm not entirely convinced that some of the many moves from Palace to Palace might have been condensed. I don't think we really needed to hear of every Christmas fete and every Easter ball.

I did very much enjoy Mary's viewpoint on her family, especially her brother George and sister Anne. Using Mary as a central character when describing Anne's sordid court life and nefarious behavior allowed us to glimpse a less glorious world at court than is usually described. Indeed, the misery inside this King's home was legendary and allowing a voice of an insider who is dissatisfied with court life made it all come alive for me.

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