My past experiences with Philippa Gregory haven’t exactly endeared her to me. I watched the first episode of the BBC adaptation of her novel The White Queen and got as far as the scene where Edward IV raped Elizabeth Woodville in the forest causing her to declare her undying love for him, at which point I promptly stopped watching. I also saw the film version of The Other Boleyn Girl, but was distracted the whole time by watching Natalie Portman chase her English accent around her face (how is it possible for her half-decent accent from V for Vendetta to have got so much worse in 3 years?)
I’d also heard things about her historical accuracy, or rather lack thereof. My A-Level History class watched a documentary where she was included in a panel of historians and historical novelists, and one of the theories she presented caused several of the others to break into hysterics and one old man looked like he was going to cry.
I therefore chose to ignore The Other Boleyn Girl during my A-Level years so I didn’t pick up any strange ideas that would make old men cry, but having finished my exams and having a historical itch to scratch (is that a thing, or am I just strange?) I decided to pick it up and have a read.
Pinning down my actual problems with this book was difficult. There’s no real overarching problems that make it a Bad Book, but a build up of small niggles just made me feel uncomfortable. And a book making you uncomfortable is possibly even worse than a Bad Book, because at least you can laugh at a Bad Book.
Setting aside the historical accuracy – and you have to, if you don’t want to spend the whole time hitting your head against a wall – Gregory sets out to humanise these infamous historical figures. This is a lofty goal, with particularly Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn having been so analysed, counter-analysed and over-analysed throughout history that it’s hard to form an opinion without it being informed by some pre-existing social or political school of thought. What they were really like as people we shall never know (although meeting controversial historical figures would be the best use of time travel as far as I’m concerned), so Gregory’s aim to bring them to life is admirable.
Unfortunately she falls at the first hurdle by Characterising them (capital letter intentional) instead of characterising them. You can’t go two pages without being reminded that Anne is self-serving and ambitious, or that Mary is kind-hearted but easily manipulated, or that George is a bit of a slut. It works well enough to begin with, but after the twentieth time of being told that Anne has an enigmatic smile an enigmatic smile is what she becomes to a reader, which puts us straight back to square one on the humanising front.
This also, slightly ironically, causes a few problems for the main theme of the book, namely family. Mary is torn throughout between her own emotions and her loyalty to the Boleyns, but when Gregory makes it so clear that they’re greedy social climbers her protestations of ‘But family!’ only work for so long before they seem a bit unbelievable. It only becomes more strained when Mary gets her own family away from the scheming of court, and yet continues to serve Anne loyally until her arrest and defend Anne to her husband as if she is some kind of misunderstood saint.
In a novel apparently about the vicious rivalry between the two sisters the rivalry appears only in an abstract form in Mary’s head. She insists repeatedly throughout that Anne is both her greatest friend and her bitterest enemy, but the interactions between the two show merely reflect the need for tension in the plot and not any realistic reaction to events. Mary is bitter or loyal as the plot needs her to be; slights are forgotten within pages, even Anne effectively stealing Mary’s son, simply so Anne’s character can be developed. I understand that she is the most historically compelling, but you shouldn’t sacrifice your protagonist’s character for that of another you deem more interesting, especially if the reader is stuck with them as a narrator. To begin with this confusing loyalty can be passed off as self-sacrifice for the family, but, as discussed above, this excuse quickly gets stretched too far to be credible.
Gregory’s actual writing style is a bit wonky at times too. There’s no real consistent issues, but every so often something happens that completely threw me. A prime example of this would be the two pages where Mary describes in intricate details events that she never witnessed and never has described to her. This happens at a few points in the book and, while I guess you could claim that Mary is filling in the gaps with her imagination it just strikes me as clunky. The benefits of using Mary’s point of view is that, other than a few basic details, not much is known about her or her movements. She therefore makes an ideal narrator, being able to witness anything the author needs her to. It seems lazy not to use that to your advantage; in the bustling social world of the court that Gregory paints it would be easy to just write Mary into a corner to overhear the important conversations she needs to. Contrived it may be, but it at least prevents your narrator from being omniscient.
When all is said and done, however, I can’t deny that I found The Other Boleyn Girl a very compelling read. I kept picking it up whenever I could and, despite not setting aside any long periods of time to read it, practically raced through what is a reasonably hefty 529 pages in quite a small typeface. I think it’s due to the short ‘segments’ the book is divided into, as they break it up into manageable chunks you can just pick up easily without dedicating hours of reading time. It also means that Gregory can’t fall prey to the common issue in historical fiction, namely boring the reader to death with lovingly researched detail about what the walls are made of. Gregory’s style is quick and gets both plot details and historical fact across neatly and effectively, making it a good starting point for someone wanting an introduction to the genre, or even someone wanting a light but exciting read.
Just so long as you don’t think about it too hard.