The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory – the story of both Boleyn sisters and their relationships

The Other Boleyn Girl

A dated historical novel? Those readers who have read the more recent ‘Cousin’s War’ series or indeed her most recent bestseller ‘Tidelands’  may wonder why I am reviewing a much older book, but the simple answer is that it is a wonderful historical novel originally published in 2001. Written from the point of view of Mary Boleyn/Carey, a young woman who becomes the mistress of Henry VIII, mother to a least one child by him, and most famously predecessor of her sister Anne. This is an historical fiction. In some sources she was a famous mistress to others while in the court of the French king, in others she was part of a family who had other dubious ‘contact’ with Henry. In this book, despite her early marriage, she is still essentially innocent and surprised that the handsome, powerful king has looked in her direction.She is flattered and confused; her family, the Howards, push her towards where they see most political advantage. The power and influence of a woman’s family is one of the main themes of this book, another is the efforts made by Anne to ensnare the king into marriage for various motives. Whatever the truth of the various women’s experiences, this is a book which tries to explain how a woman could become a queen and yet go on to be executed in the most public way. It tells of  loyalty to a tragic queen who was rejected, and the family influence on a woman who must strive to preserve what what becomes important to her. It has romance and danger, details of life at the times through the clothes and the settings, and the behaviour of an ambitious woman and a changeable king. There is so much to enjoy in this book, as well as challenge and learn about the lives of women in a different era with some familiar difficulties. 


The book opens with Mary witnessing the execution of Duke of Buckinghamshire, hoping that at the last minute there will be a reprieve. This chilling glimpse of the future shows that the stakes are indeed high for individuals who were are some point favoured by the king. This is a young Henry, attractive, powerful and majestic, yet also open to being manipulated by those around him. As Mary unintentionally attracts his interest, she is encouraged by her ambitious family to submit to his attentions. Anne, attractive in a completely different way, becomes involved with a nobleman, but when thwarted becomes vengeful. As Mary begins to realise how she is betraying Katherine, Henry’s first queen, and when she gives birth to children, she knows she is no longer the chief object of the king’s interest. It is Anne who becomes the focus of all the attention, and she lives up to her reputation for being difficult. 


Anne Boleyn’s relationship with Henry VIII is the famous second marriage which did not produce the much wanted male heir, but instead produced one of England’s greatest monarchs. Anne’s controversial end can obscure the background story of her family, and the essential purpose of this novel is to give a voice and identity to her sister Mary. While not all the narrative is true, this novel provides an enjoyable and solid read which exposes the position of women in a society which has some overlaps with our own, and reveals a fascinating portrait of both Boleyn girls.  

The Private Lives of the Tudors by Tracy Borman; Kings, Queens and their daily lives

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This immense non fiction book on a subject many people feel they know something about has one great advantage over many History books; it reads like a novel. Anyone with the sketchiest knowledge of British history has some insight into the remarkably short- lived ruling dynasty of the Tudors. Featuring only five actual monarchs, their diverse personalities and ruling styles meant changes to virtually everyone in the country, as religious practices changed, religious houses dissolved, and for the first time a woman ruled in her own name. This book goes beyond the big events and politics to reveal the tiny, intimate details of the lives of the rulers as they variously fought the forces of time, disappointment in male heirs, servants and attendants who knew so much of their often fragile bodies. This is an ideal book for everyone who has ever been curious as to how long it took to dress a queen with the “Mask of Youth” as well as those vaguely amused by such titles as “The Master of the Stool”. The clothes, the cures, the paintings and the pets are all forensically examined, but in such a flowing and natural way that a vast amount of information is absorbed without apparent effort on the part of the reader.

As with all the most comprehensive books on the Tudor dynasty, this book opens in 1485 with the confirmation of Henry VI as undeniable ruler following thirty years of instability and worse in the wars of the Houses of York and Lancaster. While there was relief at this advent of a king who quickly married the surviving heir of the House of York to confirm the end of dispute, there were still unanswered questions about pretenders to the throne which threatened the very life of Henry and his wife Elizabeth. Borman gives us details of not only royal beds, pregnancies and clothes as status symbols, but also expands into contrasting with that of the other people in the country, who remade clothes and left them in wills. The section on Henry VIII reveals his obsession with his clothes and how few survive as he handed them on as generous and sometimes political gifts. His obsession with his health and the concoctions he depended on showed his real fear that he would die without a solid succession; his sole male heir was highly prized and guarded from the moment of his birth. Edward’s own reign was dominated by the politics of those around him, as his minority rule meant that his contact with even his half sisters was closely monitored. The many theories as to his health and early death are dealt with here, as even the best medical advice of the time was unsuccessfully applied. Mary’s brief reign was dominated by her marriage and her unsuccessful attempts to bear a child, her likely long term health problems are also aired. It is when she writes of Elizabeth that Borman really expresses her knowledge to the extent of how long it would take her to dress, her taste for gorgeous and expensive fabrics, how the make up she favoured all contributed to her image as the goddess queen, above mere human aging. The long section on her death is fascinating, as her will to live and her refusal to accept her frailty persisted. Her successor, the Stuart James, is quickly dealt with as the contrast with the glory of her person and her carefully constructed reign.

This well illustrated book is surprisingly easy to read, yet with over seventy pages of notes and index this is a thoroughly researched academic book in its own right. For general readers, for those with an academic interest, for all those fascinated with the Tudor monarchs and those around them, this is a fascinating book and an undoubted treat.

I have actually got a signed copy of this book as Northernvicar and I travelled to Hampton Court and heard Tracy Borman speak on this book with excellent illustrations. She is an excellent speaker and generous with her vast knowledge of the Tudors. I have been lucky enough to get a copy of her first novel “The King’s Witch” to read and review, and already I have enjoyed several hours of this brilliantly written book. Highly recommended thus far!

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel ….Again!

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How do you review a book that has been around for so long, been staged and on tv? I have recently reread this book for another project, and been overwhelmed by just how good it is, and how reluctant I was to finish it. My previous comments on it revolve largely around how long it took me to read it, how tricky it was to follow, and such like moans. It is still a long book, an undertaking to read, and requires a new mind set to appreciate the new view it offers of a time, place and people. Diana Athill wrote “I can’t think of anything since Middlemarch which so convincingly creates a world.” As Middlemarch is a favourite of mine for its creation of a time, place and people, I can completely understand what she means.

Wolf Hall is a book about Thomas Cromwell. It is told from his point of view, but not in the first person. This creates a narrative in which we see the world through Thomas’ eyes, be where he is, know something of what he knows, but we can also pull back and see him, asking questions of himself as he sorts out the lives of others. Thomas in this version is a ‘fixer’, the supreme pragmatist who does what has to be done to whoever needs sorting out. His memory is a blessing in this work, but a curse as he copes with the loss of his wife and daughters. The loss of his family haunts this book, as does his awareness of ghosts of the past, those who lived in a house before him, and Cardinal Wolsey’s enormous personality. He copes with the women of the court, Anne, Katherine, Mary and the others that serve them with caution and sometimes confusion, seeing them as another problem to solve as well as possible actors in his scenarios.  King Henry is sometimes a child to be placated, an impossible, querulous dictator. Cromwell has his measure in this book, but remains under no illusions that he must proceed with caution to avoid potentially fatal confrontations.

This is not a perfect book. It takes its time to get anywhere, and sometimes gets bogged down under the weight of its constant thinking, reaction and action, plotting and planning. Yet it is a human book in its diverse progress, the tangents and confusions that we can understand. Life in this period could be and often was short and brutal, and this book shows us how and why. Mantel has said that she was keen to look at the events of Henry’s reign through other eyes than the wives, the King himself, the minor functionaries of court. Thomas Cromwell was the supreme fixer of problems and situations. This book shows you how and why, as well as the human thought processes behind his survival and success in a dangerous time.

The project that I am wading through huge books for is a talk on the Reformation in fiction. The Reformation in the church of the early 1500s is not really a subject for direct fiction, so I have been reading things like Dissolution as well as Wolf Hall to try and get some of the aspects of the subject illustrated. I am ploughing through the immense “The Man on  a Donkey” by H.F.M. Prescott which makes Wolf Hall look like a short story! Many characters, some real, some fictional, are all heading to life changing events.  I am about a third into the copy I have, and it was really the first novel of three. Brilliantly written, but so long. So very, very long…

The King’s Curse – Philippa Gregory

Just to prove I’m not obsessed with historical crime – well, only a little- here is prove that I do still read historical fiction. Eventually.

As a book obsessed child, I would read anything, or at least most things. I especially loved the Jean Plaidy books. The young Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, Henry’s wives; I read and re read. When I got to A level history, I read my way through her version of the Norman conquest and firmly fixed the events in my head. I still have a large number of her books on my shelves, as she wrote prodigious amounts under each name she chose there is plenty of scope (ninety odd books ?!?).

So when I discovered Philippa Gregory I realised that this was a contemporary author also tackling the Tudors in a very personal way, after her books of other periods (Restoration, 18th century slave trade etc). I loved books like The Constant Princess about Katherine of Aragon, and The Queen’s Fool. The White Queen saga had some books that were better than others, but was overall an interesting look at the Cousin’s War.

So The King’ Curse looked interesting. Back to the Tudors. albeit at the slightly less well known viewpoint of Margaret Pole, near to the throne but never a serious contender in her own lifetime. There was to be a lot about Henry VIII, and seemed to link in with that interesting character, Elizabeth of York. History nerds seemed well catered for!

This is a sad, grumpy, discontented book. Margaret Pole saw her brother executed, lost at least one son to the executioner’s axe, and was consistently challenged by the outcome of Henry’s whim regarding his first wife and daughter, later Mary I. On the other hand, she did have four children who survived into adulthood and prospered for most of their lives. She was close to the court, was incredibly wealthy in her own right, and survived until she met her death on the block at sixty seven. While at times in danger because of her Plantagenet name. and widowed relatively young, spending sometime in a convent when thoroughly out of favour, overall there must have been times of joy, positive pride in her possessions, satisfaction that she was surviving and her children were not starving. Times when she looked around her lands, savoured her influence with the highest families, and enjoyed herself. Not according to this book.

One of the criticisms of Hilary Mantel’s book is that she has Cromwell lamenting his lost family throughout. Not surprising given the suddenness of their deaths, perhaps. I found the first two books of that trilogy fascinating for so much else, however. His kindness to others. His shrewd operations, his disposal of Anne Boleyn, or at least his involvement in his downfall. I have no doubt that Margaret, as a woman subject to the whims of Henry, had some extremely bad times. She had been on the side of a Queen who lost everything, including many babies, but had also had been the friend of royalty, had amazing wealth in her own right, and seen her sons rise to power and influence.  Gregory never gives the woman a break. Gloom, sadness, grief, constant fear and expectation of downfall. No great evenings of feasting, contentment in her extended family, appreciation that for some time at least, she was alive and enjoying life.

Opening the book at random, there are sentences such as “And you are right. What you fear is a terrible curse.” This is a well written book. It seems correct in historical detail, and there is every reason to suspect that Henry was a quixotic individual who was easy to displease. There is no positive in this book. No golden court of his early reign. No day to day enjoyment on Katherine’s part of his early devotion to her. Just gloom, fear and grief. I know that we are dealing with women who had sad ends, and we can easily discover how and when they died. One of the problems of historical fiction is that they all die in the end. This novel gives little sense of the good times they enjoyed before they did. Medieval life may have been nasty, brutish and short, but there must have been some good times, some enjoyment of what was going on. Some satisfaction in faith, wealth or love. Gregory gives little sense of this in this novel, yet I have read her books where there is optimism, affection and even joy, perhaps short lived. So, this is a worthwhile book. It gives a female perspective on life in the Tudor court, or at least on the edge of it. It is not an enjoyable read, but a worthy one.