Political intrigue and scheming. Powerful families competing for favor and fortune. Beautiful women used as pawns in the politics of monarchy. Trading sex for insider information and power. Betrayal and insanity. Leaders of nations and leaders of the Church competing for position and favor. Sisters competing for the same man. Husbands being cuckolded by their superiors. Accusations of witchcraft. Real and imagined homosexual affairs. Poisoning, hanging, beheading, disemboweling and more. Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl has it all and more.
This marvelous piece of historical fiction is based on the real loves and lives of Mary and Anne Boleyn, pawns in the positioning of the Howard/Boleyn family as they compete throughout the mid-16th century with the Seymours for fame, fortune, and titles through the favor of the King. Joined by their brother George, the three are directed and guided by their Howard uncles and Boleyn father in the great and deadly serious game of capturing the King’s favor and providing him with a male heir.
At age 14, the younger Boleyn sister, Mary is already married to William Carey, a low level courtier in the royal household. The Queen, Katherine of Aragon, has failed to produce a male heir and at the ancient age of 37, is no longer expected to do so. The Howard/Boleyn faction manages to place Mary as a lady-in-waiting for the Queen and maneuvers to have Mary catch Henry’s eye (as Henry is ever the randy Monarch). The sheer determination and deliberateness of the planning is shown terrifically well in the dialogue:
“Is she fertile?” Uncle Howard asked my mother.
“Her courses are regular enough and she is a healthy girl”
My uncle nodded. “If the King has her, and she conceives his bastard, then we have much to play for…She can’t sleep in Carey’s bed any more. The marriage has to be put aside while the King favors her”
This, discussion, mind you, takes place with Mary present. Gregory tells you all you need to know about blind and brutal ambition in just 3 lines of dialogue.
Mary does indeed catch the King’s eye, and becomes the apple of that eye for a time and bears him two children, first a girl and then a boy. The King’s interest wanes both from familiarity, boredom, and his restless nature. As the King becomes less interested in Mary, there is another family conference and Mary, George, and Anne are directed to now push Anne in the Kings direction.
Anne recognizes quickly that her only hope of winning is marriage to the King and begins the plotting that eventually ends up with Henry divorcing both his Queen of 20 years and the Catholic Church. But Anne has a challenge that Mary did not….she knows that she cannot sleep with the King and remain marriageable. The tightrope dance that Anne must perform takes her every energy and, eventually as Gregory masterfully describes it, her soul. By “adopting” Mary’s children Anne blackmails Mary’s continuing presence at Court to support her ambition to be Queen. Mary submits, but continues to struggle to get her children, and her life, returned to her.
The rest of the story Gregory tells with great skill, making what we already know into a suspense filled thriller. Anne, of course, is successful in her plotting and becomes Queen. Her first child is the girl, Elizabeth. She hides a miscarriage. She cannot hide her third pregnancy, which also results in a miscarriage of a “monster”. Failure to produce a male heir, the enmity of the entire court and country for having deposed the beloved Katherine and her own plotting and unstable behavior produce her undoing…. she is charged and convicted as a witch and for an incestuous relationship with her brother and fellow plotter George. Both are executed and Mary – out of the limelight – is allowed to return to her farm with her new husband, William. It is with William that Mary finally marries for love.
It is a final irony well told that Anne’s undoing might have much to do with the Seymour family’s successful placing of Jane Seymour in the path of the King. Within 24 hours of Anne’s death, Henry was betrothed to Jane, with whom Henry finally produces a male heir. Irony, indeed.
Addendum -- Philippa Gregory's other books are also very good, those included below I have read and very much enjoyed.