Philippa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl”

As a big fan of historical fiction, and also a big fan of Tudor history, particularly Anne Boleyn, I was quite excited to pick up this novel that focused on the forgotten tale of Mary Boleyn.  It makes a good, light read, as long as it is not taken seriously.  It is enjoyable for perhaps a reader that is ignorant of the tale of Anne Boleyn, but if they are unfamiliar, they are going to go away with a very dark picture of Henry VIII‘s most famous wife.
The research surrounding the everyday lives of the courtiers is thorough and convincing, as are the details of the buildings, landscape and costumes.  The main problem with this novel is that Gregory is clutching at straws to come up with a story for Mary and fleshing her out as a character, and as such, sacrifices Anne’s character as a two-dimensional super bitch.  Mary is characterised as her opposite, but is problematically modernised for the modern reader.  Many of Mary’s reactions to situations are completely out of context.  Gregory would have done a better job to have made her a woman of her time and made us understand her in her own contemporary society, that way; we would have truly been drawn into their world.
The depiction of Anne is awful to put it mildly.  It makes her out to be guilty of the worst crimes, and that her fate was deserved.  She is made out to be a truly selfish person, concentrating only on herself, and that any charm that she had was not her natural personality, but a complete act.  I know this is fiction, but I think an author has a responsibility when writing about someone who was a real person.  This is a clear insult to her memory.  Anne spent much of her time studying theology, as a patron to the arts and to religious figures she had sympathy for, and did endless work for the poor.  Of course nobody is perfect, but at least add gray to the palette, not complete black or white.  And Gregory has taken almost every single exciting rumour and scandal that have since proved false by historians and fitted it into her plot to make a wild Eastender’s episode.

The film adaptation of this novel, starring Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn and Scarlett Johansson as her sister Mary should be avoided.

The film adaptation of this novel, starring Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn and Scarlett Johansson as her sister Mary, should be avoided.

Despite the terrible representation of both Anne and Mary (she is a little too perfect) I wouldn’t call this novel anti-feminist or misogynistic as many critics have been branding this novel (though Gregory does seem to have something against ambition, though she depicts it as a destructive force for both men and women).  The problem with feminist critics is that they focus too much on the representation of just women and not the men, but it seems very clear to me that the men do no better in this novel.

If you know you would not take this novel too seriously, then I think it would be enjoyable for you.  It is an easy accessible read, and has a lot to offer on every day Tudor life, and it may pull you in to do some of your own research in non-fiction books.  Just as long as you do not go away thinking that this story has any truth in it besides from the obvious.  On a side note I have also seen the film, and will briefly say that while this book may be worth some of your time, the film most certainly is not.






6 Responses to “Philippa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl””

  1. freelanceallison Says:

    I enjoyed the book on a shallow level – just like you said you need to take it as a fiction book with historical characters. I completely agree that if you like history, and accurate history, this book may not really fulfill your appetite. But taken as a novel, it is juicy, just forget that these characters are supposed to be based on real ones. The movie is much less detailed than the book, and contains much less backstory. The book was more enjoyable for me than the movie as a whole….

  2. Thank you for the comment. Are there any particular qualms with the film? The movie is a little less harsh of Anne’s character, but overall, it’s just not a good depiction of the Tudor court, and the characters are two dimensional, as they are in the book. But ultimately, the casting was atrocious. Natalie Portman would have been the last person I cast as Anne Boleyn. Scarlatt Johansson kind of suited it all, but I found Portman bizarre. Eric Bana made a terrible Henry VIII. I imagine he had a terrible script and struggled to bring some humility to the role, but there was just no trace of it. Sadly, TV series of ‘The Tudors’ is far better than the film. Both in characterisation and acting. 😦 The costumes are nice though.

  3. freelanceallison Says:

    The movie was good – true entertainment though. MUCH different from the book though – to me it left out too much of the backstory which is why I enjoyed the book. So the movie just flowed through too quickly and left out some juicy plot-lines in my opinion. I think Bana is a gorgeous man but not quite the image of King Henry that I wanted to see, and I agree with your opinion on Portman too – She did a good job of being icy and seemingly heartless though. The Tudors on tv is much better but again it’s all entertainment – much less on the historical side of things. What I dislike about the Tudors show on tv is that I’m just not sold on Anne’s character yet. Maybe that’s the point but I just am unsettled by the girl who plays her – but come to think of that may be what they’re going for…that is what Anne is all about right?!

  4. I hated the movie, I thought it was about the wrong Boleyn girl! The book focuses on Mary, yet the film focused on Anne, plus they missed far too much out and it seemed rushed. Even though I’m a huge Anne Boleyn fan and Tudor history fan, I actually like Philippa Gregory’s book. The Other Boleyn Girl novel was compelling, it drew you into the characters and completely hooked me. I treated it as fiction, which is what it is, and it entertained me. I love my history text books and Anne Boleyn biographies in a different way. The book wasn’t fair on Anne and definitely was not true to history but if it makes people want to find out more about her then that’s a good thing.

  5. Like you said, if taken as a fictitious novel, its a good and fun read.

    What I find funny is that, in reality (or from what I can gather from my own hunting) the personas are suppose to be the other way around. Mary is the deceitful little fox trying to worm her way into Henry’s bed, and Anne isn’t suppose to be quite so sly. I’m not saying she’s a complete innocent, but it is altogether quite funny.

  6. If you like Historical books, you should try Allison Weir, the stories are a little more truthful and the facts more accurate. Her writing style is also very engrossing.

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