Our book today is the one that started it all: Philippa Gregory’s totally unexpected runaway bestseller, The Other Boleyn Girl (originally titled The Other Boleyn Sister – obviously it was feared that historically illiterate American audiences would feel they were reading a sequel, as with The Madness of King George III)(although I myself actually prefer the American title here – it has a slightly more brutal, impersonal tone, one that fits the book’s mercenary tale better than the more familial ’Sister’).
Safe to say no historical novel written in the last thirty years has been as influential as this one. In only ten years, The Other Boleyn Girl has generated five spin-offs, two different movie adaptations (one for the BBC and one for the mysterious ongoing purpose of keeping Eric Bana employed), an ongoing HBO series (since The Tudors would be unthinkable without the success of the book), and a vast, untrackable ocean of like-minded books set in the Tudor era (I plumb that sea at greater depth here). And like great touchstone historical novels before it, The Other Boleyn Girl has exerted its main influence as a kind of imaginative primer. Just as Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur opened the floodgates for Roman historical fiction, just as Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber opened the floodgates for a brief resurgence of Restoration bodice-rippers, so The Other Boleyn Girl has taught a generation of readers that the Tudor era isn’t something they need a Ph.D. in history to enter and understand. Such teaching often pays long dividends, and this time is no exception: Hilary Mantel owes her recent Man Booker win as much to Philippa Gregory as to the intrinsic strength of Wolf Hall.
Gregory’s book stands like an imperturbable tower above the brick-bats that have been hurled at it by its critics (myself included, way back when and under a pen-name), who for years have assailed its historical accuracy. Those critics, being critics, would have done that anyway, although in this case they were egged on by Gregory’s own claims for the historical accuracy of her book. Historical novelists almost always make such claims, and critics are well-advised to ignore them and concentrate on the important things about fiction, foremost of which is this: does it work?
The Other Boleyn Girl incontestably works. Gregory had written extremely competent if tweedy historical novels earlier in her career (including a whole series chronicling the exploits of a family of gardeners to royalty – how’s that for an English double-whammy?), but in this book she makes some key decisions, and they all pay off.
As you all know, this is the story of Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary, who was the first of Thomas Boleyn’s daughters to catch the roving eye of King Henry VIII, who’s portrayed here as tiring of his aging Spanish queen and hungry for sexual adventures – and a male heir. Gregory decides to tell the story from Mary’s point of view, to tell it sharply with none of the fustian palaver that had usually infested Tudor novels, and to shape her characters into resolutely modern people in period costume. Scenes unfold and transform with almost time-lapse rapidity, and Gregory’s previously languid approach to character development is here whittled to a series of mostly pointed observations. In crafting such a narrative, Gregory inadvertently grants Mary far, far more intelligence than she really possessed, but it’s a minor infraction, especially considering the sheer amounts of fun that result. The Other Boleyn Girl is above all a quite fantastic read. It’s comforting to think that alone might account for a great deal of its success.
Despite the cavils of historical critics, there’s a good deal of accurate research at the back of this book. But its main delight comes in it quick exchanges of dialogue, as in the tense little scene in which Anne sends her sister off to be with Henry:
“Are you clean?” Anne asked sharply.
She looked at me anxiously. “Go on then. And you can resist for a bit, you know. Show a little doubt. Don’t just fall into his arms.”
I turned my face away from her. She seemed to me quite unbearably crass about the whole matter.
“The girl can have a bit of pleasure,” George said gently.
Anne rounded on him. “Not in his bed,” she said sharply. “She’s not there for her pleasure but for his.”
I didn’t even hear her. All I could ear was the thud of my heart pounding in my ears and my knowledge that he had sent for me, that I would be with him soon.
“Come on,” I said to George. “Let’s go.”
Anne turned to go back into the room. “I’ll wait up for you,” she said.
I hesitated. “I might not come back tonight.”
She nodded. “I hope you don’t. But I’ll wait up for you anyway. I’ll sit by the fire and watch the dawn come in.”
I thought for a moment about her keeping a vigil for me in her spinster bedroom while I was snug and loved in the King of England’s bed. “My God, you must wish it was you,” I said with sudden acute delight.
She did not flinch from it. “Of course. He is the king.”
You can see several of the basic ingredients of The Other Boleyn Girl in that little scene (and a few of its key weaknesses, here symbolized in that repeated ‘sharply’): the modern speech cadences, full of contractions and free of ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’ the economical evocation of setting (characters in the book imagine each other doing things almost as often as they actually do things), and of course a free-wheeling willingness to make a scenery-chewing Lucifer out of Anne Boleyn.
Gregory’s also not above winking a little at her audience, as in this much later scene in which Mary and George attend the banquet in honor of Anne becoming the Marquess of Pembroke (and honor bestowed by the besotted Henry):
At the banquet George and I sat side by side and looked up at our sister, seated beside the king.
He did not ask if I was envious. It was an answer too obvious to be worth inquiry. “I don’t know another woman who could have done it,” he said. “She has a unique determination to be on the throne.”
“I never had that,” I said. “The only thing I’ve ever wanted from childhood was not to be overlooked.”
“Well you can forget that,” George said with brotherly frankness. “You’ll be overlooked now for the rest of your life. We’ll both be as nothing. Anything I achieve will be seen as her gift. And you’ll never match her. She’s the only Boleyn anyone will ever know of or remember. You’ll be a nobody forever.”
It was the word “nobody.”At the very word the bitterness drained out of me, and I smiled. “You know, there might be some joy in being a nobody.”
“You’ll be a nobody forever” indeed. There are Other Boleyn Girl tours, Other Boleyn Girl garden parties, Other Boleyn Girl stationary lines and book clubs … and I already mentioned the legion of knockoff novels set in a Tudor court suddenly become so lusty it’s a wonder anybody ever had time to trade dispatches with the Venetian ambassador.
We all owe that renaissance – the good and the bad of it – to Philippa Gregory and her improbable blockbuster of a book. Each publishing season, roughly 400 hopefuls plop their Tudor wares on the counter and hope the public will consume them in equal quantities, but so far that kind of success has evaded them all (and Gregory herself – none of those sequels sold more than a fraction of what the original did and still does). This is only natural, though the poor things don’t see it. The next lynch-pin book that catches and sparks the public’s imagination will be as unexpected as The Other Boleyn Girl was, and it will turn all eyes toward a different era entirely. The Windsors, anyone?