The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

I read this for the first time when I was sixteen (and already several years into my Tudor obsession, which continues unabated to this day). I loved this book. Legitimately loved it. I knew enough about the Tudors to realize that Gregory took major liberties with the story, but since I found the story so much fun (backstabbing! usurping! incest! gossip! intrigue!) that I didn’t even mind the blatant disregard for the facts.

The book follows Mary Boleyn (the other Boleyn of the title) and starts right before she becomes the mistress of King Henry VIII. Everything is going well, but then Mary’s bitch sister Anne comes home from France and attracts Henry’s attention. The Boleyn family seizes their chance to advance and pushes Mary out of the way so Anne can become the king’s mistress. Anne, however, has other plans, and holds Henry off – she doesn’t want to be a mistress, she wants to be a queen. She succeeds, and we see Anne’s rise and terrible fall through Mary’s eyes.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I still stand by my love of this book. Yes, it’s inaccurate and needlessly melodramatic. Yes, the characters are generally terrible (Anne is basically a Disney villain, Henry is laughably ridiculous, and Mary Boleyn is inconsistent to say the least). Yes, Gregory never misses an opportunity for a pointless sex scene.

But if nothing else, you have to admire the way she goes balls-out and ignores facts and logic in favor of creating a dramatic scandal-tastic story. Anne isn’t just a scheming social climber, she’s evil; she and her brother George aren’t just accused of sleeping together, they’re actually doing it; Anne is disinterested in Elizabeth and when she does finally have a son, the baby is stillborn and deformed; and Jane Seymour (who history has designated the Good Girl in all this) is a scheming bitch who knows exactly what she’s doing when she steals Henry’s attention from Anne. Not one of those things actually happened. (well, maybe the Jane thing – she didn’t live very long, and she could have been an evil mastermind for all we know)

I once had a history professor in college who, when asked how he felt about the inaccuracies in historical movies, said that he didn’t mind inaccuracies as long as they still made for an entertaining story. Entertainment, rather than getting everything exactly right, are what matters in fiction because it’s fiction. If Gregory wanted to write 100% accurate accounts of the Tudors, she’d be writing nonfiction books. But she wants to entertain as well as educate, so she writes sexy romance novels wearing flimsy historical disguises, and she makes a shit-ton of money doing it. For this, I cannot fault her. If you love these books, I won’t judge you. Just take everything she says with a big grain of salt, and then go read Alison Weir.

Verdict: four out of five stars

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