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.
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.