I picked up Philippa Gregory’s novel The Other Boleyn Girl for some light summer reading. I’m quite drawn to the current trend of retelling history from the perspectives of women who lived them, though I wasn’t sure how historical this would be, and how much it might be, well, a bodice-ripper, as they say. I was very pleasantly surprised. Ms. Gregory is known for her historical research—she has a PhD—and it was clear that great study had gone into realizing the food, dress, and landscape of England. The story was hard to put down. We know of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, mother of Queen Elizabeth, beheaded to make way for wife #3 (of 6). Less known is that Anne’s sister Mary was the king’s lover first. Mary had two children by the king, one of them a boy. Ms. Gregory delves into this story of intrigue as the family schemes to capture and keep the heart (and power) of the king. The sisters are a tenuous alliance, often pitted against each other but tied by the bond of blood. At any given moment in time, either of them might be reduced to being the Other Boleyn girl, as the title so aptly names them. The political backdrop is fascinating, as is the decadent life of court. I found myself, out for Korean food with my husband, expounding on the fascinating details of the Tudor court. An example: Anne Boleyn began to fall out of favor with her husband the king when they had been married for a few years sans son. Anne always dressed in the French style, having grown up at French court, with a particular headpiece to match. The king’s new favorite was Jane Seymour (daughter of another powerful scheming household, who would eventually be queen and die in childbirth giving him a sickly son.) Jane adopted the religious house-shaped hat that the former Spanish Queen Katharine had worn. And so now the ladies in waiting were torn: which style to choose? The style of hat indicated loyalty, and loyalty would be rewarded or punished based on which woman won out. Fascinating.
I have to say, her first book of the next series on the Plantagenets, The White Queen, is nowhere near as good. The political backdrop remains fascinating: the book is set during the war of the Roses, when cousins battled for kingship while England suffered. Beginning in 1464, the novel is written in the voice of Elizabeth Woodward, who married secretly across battle lines and wound up queen of England when her husband won. She is best known—and this is the most interesting part of the book—as the mother of the two princes who disappeared from the Tower of London—a mystery that has never been solved. But, 20-year time period that the book spans results in a slow middle, and this book lacks that emotional center and tension of The Other Boleyn Girl’s battling sisters. The writing itself is not very strong. It’s rather repetitive, as though Ms. Gregory is afraid the reader has forgotten what happened two chapters ago. Some of the repetitiveness is necessary: there seems to have been about 5 male names spread among all the characters. Elizabeth had TWO sons, a brother, and a brother-in-law all named Richard. (Yikes!) To keep us on track, Ms. Gregory wisely always refers to characters by their relationship and title, but given that no one would ever say to her mother “my brother-in-law George of Clarence,” the dialogue is (for this and other reasons) stilted, even fake. I do have to say that I still read the whole book, and after doing so I certainly want to look up this fascinating historical period that the author has imagined so well.
Ah, the joy of books.