Phillipa Gregory’s ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’

This is about Phillipa Gregory’s novel The Other Boleyn Girl, not the film adaptation of the same name, which I had a whole separate lot of issues with. Discussion of both book, film and original television adaptation are welcome.

I first read Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl about two years ago, and absolutely loved it. But since spending a fair chunk of this year reading any piece of fiction about the Tudors that my cluster of libraries has, not to mention Gregory’s atrocious Wideacre, I’m more aware of how problematic her portrayal of Anne Boleyn is.

Credit where credit is due, I liked the positive way Gregory portrayed Anne’s sister Mary, who narrates the book. (Younger in this book, but historians are divided about who was the younger sister.) Mary Boleyn has typically been portrayed as promiscuous and stupid, giving her sexual favours to any man who caught her eye and completely lacking in ambition or common sense. But Gregory’s Mary is a woman basically pimped out by her family – marry this man, he will be a credit to the Boleyn name, now cuckold him with the king so we can reap the benefits of having a royal mistress in our numbers – who seeks a quiet life not because she lacks the intelligence to qualify for court life and make a noble marriage, but because she sees the value in living comfortably with a man she loves. Like all interpretations of history, we have no proven idea of who Mary Boleyn was, but it’s a pleasant change to have someone say, hey, maybe this girl wasn’t stupid, maybe she had the right idea all along in marrying for love and fading into obscurity while the rest of her family were shamed and/or beheaded.

But on to Anne. Mary starts off in King Henry VIII’s favour as his mistress, bearing him two children. Anne is full of jealousy and determined to make a better match than a mistress or wife of minor nobility. She falls for Henry Percy, heir to one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the country after the Tudors themselves, and is devastated when her and Henry’s fathers decide between them that the marriage is not to be. This heartbreak sets the foundation for Anne’s ambition: since she can’t have the man she loves, she may as well marry as high as she can, to hell with anyone who might get hurt in the process.

King Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon is, at this point, on the rocks, with Katherine menopausal and aging fast. Anne delights in criticizing Katherine’s looks, dowdiness and lack of affection from Henry behind her back, and frequently throws Henry’s affection for her in Katherine’s face. Anne is a woman who not only wants her rival dead, but shamelessly celebrates when Katherine obliges her. She then adopt her nephew, Mary’s son, against his mother’s will in order to strengthen her claim to King Henry’s affections and weaken Mary’s. She doesn’t care that in doing so, she has broken her sister’s heart; in fact, she uses Mary’s son, little Henry, as bait to get Mary to do her bidding – go back to the family home or you won’t see little Henry, come back to court or you won’t see him. When Mary, who first married for her family’s ambition and then became the King’s mistress, marries a second time for love and becomes pregnant an infuriated, jealous Anne, bitter that Mary is both happy and able to bear healthy children, banishes her from court and tells her she will never see little Henry again.

There are moments where the reader has genuine sympathy for Anne. After teaching King Henry to follow his desires and ditch Katherine for a younger, more fertile model, she finds herself in the same position as Katherine, ditched for the younger, more fertile Jane Seymour. Regardless of what Anne may have done, she didn’t deserve to be beheaded for her inability to bear a son. But even this isn’t done with as much insight as it could have been; in other novels about Anne Boleyn, such as Margaret Campbell Barnes’s Brief Gaudy Hour, Anne is portrayed as much more aware of the tragic irony of her position, and repentant, now that she knows what it is to be in Katherine’s shoes, wishing she had stood up for her predecessor. Gregory’s Anne is far more self-absorbed and far less repentant than Barnes’s and because of that, far less interesting and sympathetic.

Can anyone say which author got the ‘real’ Anne Boleyn? Of course not, and part of historical fiction is the creative licence to fill in the blanks left by incomplete records. But Gregory has indulged in the ugly stereotypes that surround Anne – the ‘bitch’, the ‘slut’ – instead of exploring the possibility of a more nuanced, sympathetic woman. And for someone with university qualifications as a historian, Gregory really should have known better.


  1. M.C. says

    I read the novel after watching the film and… well, I liked the film better.

    The novel makes Anne too one-dimensional. Like you said, she’s the slut stereotype. There are only hints of her being an actual person, like when she cries after losing Percy and calls him “My only love”.

    In the film Anne had more nuances and the Mary/Anne rivalry felt more realistic. In the novel Anne was cruel to Mary just because. In the film she had good reason to believe that Mary had betrayed her first by seducing the king when Anne wanted him and then by telling her father that Anne had secretly married Percy.
    Plus I like how in the film Mary and Anne reconciled and seemed to have genuine affection for each other. That didn’t show in the novel.

    Oh well, my favourite Anne Boleyn is still Natalie Dormer from The Tudors. If the real Anne was anything liker her, it’s easy to believe that she could change the course of English history forever with her passion and wit.

  2. scarlett says

    MC, TOTALLY agree with you that Dormer is the BEST ANNE EVER. I could totally buy that she had this chameleon personality that could be a lot of things and that she could totally get men to move mountains for her, and in doing so, change the course of history, using her looks and wit.

    Maybe because I felt the book captured the feel of of history better – whatever issues I have with Gregory’s portrayal of women, she knows her history – I much preferred the book. Like, no way would Anne have ever been the preferred one to become Henry’s mistress – any family worth their salt put forward married daughters so they had plausible deniability should they girl becme pregnant. And I thought the book made better use of Jane Boleyn, Anne’s increasing desperation to have a child, and how her anger at Mary marrying Stafford stemmed from the fact she was happy with a man she loved and able to have children while Anne was Queen, but married to a tyrant and unable to have a child beyond Elizabeth.

    Plus, one of the big issues I had with the movie was the rape scene. It’s not in the book, and it’s not in any history or historical fiction book I’ve ever read. I thought it was a shortcut to say ‘this guy takes whatever he wants’ or ‘haha, that’s what you get for promising a guy sex and not actually putting out’.

  3. Maria says

    I think the other thing with the rape scene is that it’s a way of describing the WORST THING EVER to happen to a female character — it’s lazy writing, and suggests that women can be reduced emotionally to their status as sex objects.

  4. scarlett says

    Well, in the book it goes into how cruel Henry could be if he tired of someone and that someone didn’t have the good sense to retire gracefully on whatever scraps he deigned to give them. Like he basically tossed KofA out to rot in poverty when she refused to acknowledge her marriage as invalid and spent the rest of her life scheming how to punish her for that – moving her around to more and more miserable places, demanding she hand over Spanish crown jewels for Anne to wear, refusing to let her see her daughter Mary. To me, spending several years wondering what a cruel, spiteful, tyrannical man was going to do next would be a pretty awful thing to happen, too, but the fact they chose to use a rape that probably didn’t happen verses that kind of ongoing mental cruelty smacks to me of lazy writing.

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