Philippa Gregory’s The Boleyn Inheritance

For me, Philippa Gregory is one of those writers who can write in appalling, narrow stereotypes (for example, Beatrice Lacey) while also fleshing out and vindicating women who have been vilified by history (Queen Mary). The Boleyn Inheritance is the immediate sequel to The Other Boleyn Girl, and third chronologically in her series of six novels about the Tudors, which starts with the birth of Katherine of Aragon and ends with the death of Mary Stuart. Its first person narrative is split three ways among Jane Boleyn (George’s wife/widow and Anne’s sister-in-law), Anne of Cleves – Henry VIII’s fourth wife – and Katherine Howard – his fifth. Jane, Anne and Katherine were all popular names in the period, so forgive me if it gets confusing. All the women have commonly been reduced to broad stereotypes : Jane, the evil bitch; Anne, the ugly woman lacking in intellect and Katherine, the silly slut. Gregory’s portrayal of Jane and Katherine partially confirm these stereotypes but also broaden them into interesting, fleshed-out women, and she completely turns the portrayal of Anne on its head.

Jane Boleyn.

There isn’t a lot of material starring Jane, and TBI is a far more engaging read than the only other one I know of – Brandy Purdy’s The Boleyn Wife. It was Jane’s testimony that helped send Anne and George to the block (a historical fact as well as something we discover at the end of TOBG) with her claims of an incestuous relationship between the two (long since largely discredited), and it’s fascinating to read her justifications of it. It’s mostly to do with Anne being an irresistible temptress who stole men’s affections from their rightful wives, including that of her own brother. In the historical notes at the back, it’s Gregory’s contention that Jane was insane, and she certainly comes across as such in The Boleyn Inheritance. She’s played a part in  at least three executions – Anne, George, and Katherine Howard – and had no qualms about doing the same thing to Anne of Cleves. She understands what she has done; she just doesn’t care, or tries to justify it – they either deserved it, or were collateral damage. Understandably, Jane has routinely been reduced to a caricatural ‘evil bitch’ character, and while she demonstrates some serious lack of empathy for anyone but herself in this book, it’s still interesting to read her thoughts. Jane was one of the longest players in Henry’s VIII’s court, her actions spanning five queens. She understands the intricacies of court life, is deeply ambitious and can recall the past with a weary savviness that I believe makes her one of the strongest of all Gregory’s narrators, certainly stronger than the unambitious Mary Boleyn or merchant’s daughter Hannah. Her thoughts on Anne and Katherine’s actions really power the story, and flesh out the two other women in a way they couldn’t have done it on just their own narratives.

Katherine Howard.

Katherine has routinely been portrayed as a silly, vain girl and while Gregory doesn’t attempt to match her intellect or savviness with, say, Jane Boleyn, she has her own brand of intellect that we’d call streetwise if she wasn’t so short-sighted in her ambitions. She knows how to manipulate men into giving her what she wants, and is capable of keeping a thought in the back of her mind and slowly but surely coming to her own conclusions. In one scene, when she’s started to have an affair at Jane’s instigation, she at first takes Jane’s word for it that her infidelity was different to that of her cousin, Anne Boleyn, but gradually wheedles enough information out of Jane to realise that actually, no it’s not. Initially, when Anne of Cleves is overthrown for her, she is indifferent to her predecessor’s humiliation, but as the same thing happens to her, she realises she should have said something on her part. It may take her a while to come to a conclusion, and she certainly lacks the sharp wit of her cousin Anne Boleyn, but she is by no means incapable of independent thought.

Shortly into her marriage with Henry, Katherine begins an affair with Francis Dereham, at Jane’s instigation. (Jane believed Henry was incapable of having children, so, with the help of her uncle-in-law, concocted a scheme whereby Katherine would become pregnant to someone else and pass it off as Henry’s.) In one of Jane’s narratives, she points out both the hypocrisy of Henry dallying with other women while expecting fidelity of his wives, as well as the unfairness of a teenaged Katherine being married to a grumpy old man while falling for a boy her own age. Despite the fact she was committing treason, and would go to the block for it, it’s difficult not to have sympathy for Katherine, as a girl shoved into marriage at her family’s ambitions who would have been happier with a boy who loved her and a house in the country.

Anne of Cleves

TBI‘s portrayal of Anne of Cleves is my favorite by far. Stereotyped as ‘the ugly one,’ Anne of Cleves was a German princess eager to leave her homeland and brother’s overbearing rule; she was actually one of the few foreign women at that point who weren’t running scared at the thought of marrying Henry. Traditionally she’s portrayed as unfashionable and lacking in intellect and carrying around with her the ‘stench’ of German spices. But through her and Jane’s narratives, we see that she’s highly intelligent and perceptive, just lacking in English skills and political savvy about the English court system. (Ie, that people say platitudes to your face while waiting for your back to turn to stick the knife in, and that everything Henry wants, no matter how ridiculous or unreasonable, is done immediately.) Henry dislikes her from the get-go, and she is his shortest-lived wife (no pun intended; she was actually the last of the six to die and one of only two who outlived Henry). When he starts divorce proceedings, she realises that she can accept the conditions he’s offering – that she agrees she was precontracted to someone else, ergo, the marriage was never valid, and get a generous settlement that will allow her to live independently – or she can dig her heels in, which will most likely lead to the scaffold. It’s a miserable choice, but she’s smart enough to know that she would rather live in comfort than rot in the Tower awaiting execution. Later, in Jane’s narrative, she thinks that in doing so, Anne will never marry or have children, because Henry has decreed she’s married to someone else so he could marry someone else; that it would never have occurred to Henry what he was taking from Anne by following his lust, but that Anne would have, and made the choice anyway. I like this portrayal of Anne as an intelligent woman, albeit one hampered by her language skills.

When Henry marries Katherine, Anne is invited back to the palace for some celebration or another, and she’s completely transformed. Now that she’s no longer in fear of losing his affection, scared that any move might be the wrong one, Jane observes that Anne has blossomed into a fashionable, poised young woman whose English has progressed in leaps and bounds. Katherine, Jane notes with disapproval, while sweet enough, is a silly, vain child who would rather play on the floor with her kittens than do anything queenly; Anne, on the other hand, is witty, generous and dignified, and Henry was a fool to choose Katherine over her.

The book closes with Katherine and Jane’s executions, with Anne’s narrative on the last chapter. Henry has just died; his sixth wife, Katherine Parr, was saved the block by pure luck of him dying before he tired of her. Despite being separated from Henry for a good five years, Anne feels relief that she is no longer at the mercy of a despotic bully for not being exactly what he wanted in accordance with whatever his whim was at the time. She is free to eat the foods she likes, invite the people she likes over to share it, practice the faith how she feels is right, own a cat, dance in her garden. Freedom, she says; it is no small thing for a woman to have.

The Boleyn Inheritance is definitely one of Gregory’s best works from a feminist perspective. All three women are interesting, and the first-person narratives, if somewhat confusing at first, redeem in the eyes of the reader women who have been vilified by history. And for women in history, redemption is almost as good as freedom.

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