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.