Brandy Purdy, author of The Boleyn Wife, has a rather appropriate first name; after a hundred pages of her take on history, I wondered if she had consumed a hell of a lot of it while writing the book. After a hundred and fifty I wanted some. It’s not so much historical fiction but fiction where the main characters happen to share the same names as real-life historical people. It’s kind of like bad fanfiction where the characters have nothing in common with their canon characters other than the name – hey, let’s call in historical fanfiction!
Anyway, The Boleyn Wife tells the story of Jane Boleyn, wife to George and sister-in-law to Anne. Her testimony helped send them both to the block, and she’s largely been portrayed as an evil monster. Which I suspect is the main reason she interests me; who was this woman that she betrayed her kin? Was she suffering from a mental illness, undiagnosed at the time? Was her and George’s marriage abusive? Was George and Anne’s relationship really so close that Jane went mad with jealousy?
Sadly, TBW fails to answer any of these questions, except maybe to hint at the first one – was she actually mentally ill all her life? Purdy’s Jane speaks in the first narrative, and talks about her determination to have George Boleyn as a husband, though her father advises against it. The marriage is unhappy from the start, and Jane is bitterly jealous, to a point that she physically attacks the men who come to her sister-in-law Anne’s aid. She actively wishes for Anne to die – first of fever, then of childbirth. She’s not sorry when her testimony sends Anne to her death; only that George, loyal to her every step of the way, flings down his own life rather than stay with Jane. It was ambiguous as to whether or not George and Anne did have the incestuous relationship they’ve long since been vindicated of and whether Jane just imagined it in her delusions.
And that was the classy bit.
In Purdy’s world – and this is when it transcends from historical fiction into historical fanfiction – Jane had an affair with Cromwell, and had a son, who she gave away. While Cromwell was manipulating her into doing his bidding, then discarding her. Maybe she was insane in Purdy’s world, because my first thought was that Jane should palm it off as George’s – who had recently been beheaded so couldn’t argue – and claim the entire Boleyn fortune. Oh, and then Jane witnesses the lesbian affair between Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard.
(I. Am. Not. Making. This. Up.)
So Jane gets caught up in Katherine Howard’s infidelities and blah blah beheadings blah. I lost interest at the lesbian affair bit. Sadly enough, the book had a few moments of intelligence; in a conversation with Mary Boleyn, Jane realises that perhaps Mary was the smartest of all three of them, marrying for love and riding off into the sunset with a husband who worships her while she and Anne are hated by their husbands. But that’s not explored nearly enough.
Instead, Purdy goes for a historically incorrect portrayal of Anne, George, Katherine and Anne of Cleves. Can I say Purdy’s account didn’t happen? Of course not, I wasn’t exactly there in 1500-something. But there’s accepted history, there’s backed-up theory, and then there’s the Harlequin rubbish that Purdy is palming off as historical fiction.
I would love to know what motivated the real Jane Boleyn. There is little doubt she was insane, but what kind of insane, and did her unhappy marriage exacerbate an underlying condition? A fascinating question to me, but, unfortunately, one that Purdy fails miserably in answering.