Review: Mary Boleyn, Alison Weir vs. The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory

The week before last I went to Hampton Court with a friend for the first time since I was eight.  As well as getting completely lost in the maze and having a good gawk at the hallowed halls where Henry VIII and co. once lived, there are also some pretty decent gift shops which rather saw me coming – postcards galore were purchased and I also bought a biography of Mary Boleyn.  I’ve mentioned before that the Tudors was the first period of history that caught my imagination – Year 3 history topic has had rather a lot to answer for.  My Mum was even caught by my enthusiasm and bought Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII.  I was never the type of child to back away from a reading challenge and I tried to read it too, but tended to get bored about the bits concerning the ‘boring’ wives (my apologies to Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves, I have since learnt their value).  I finally read all of it when I was eleven … I’ve since read most of Alison Weir’s output although my feelings about her as a historical novelist have been documented.

As a child, I was rather shocked to discover that Anne Boleyn’s sister had been Henry VIII’s girlfriend before Anne Boleyn – I was only eight and had a rather confused view of what illegitimacy meant.  I was startled to hear of the young Henry Fitzroy who my Mum offhandedly described as ‘definitely Henry’s son’ but that Mary Boleyn had had a son who Henry ‘didn’t think was his’.  Again, it took a while for me to really understand how that would work … it’s funny how you see a story differently as you get older.  I really have grown up with these characters and they died five hundred years before I was even born …

So Mary Boleyn puzzled me – she was a peculiar footnote to Henry and Anne Boleyn’s ghastly love story.  Anne Boleyn held off Henry for six years while her sister had been an apparent notorious woman of ill repute.  It is an odd idea, getting involved with your sister’s former lover – even if you’re not close with your sister, even if the affair was never serious, even if the man involved is also your King.  I am not alone in this though, it is fairly clear that Mary Boleyn has provoked a lot of discussion both during her own life and ever since.  However, as Alison Weir states herself in her introduction, things started to really gather up steam since the publication of Philippa Gregory’s novel The Other Boleyn Girl in 2001.  Films have been made, lies have been seen as fact and there’s nothing like being portrayed on film by Scarlet Johannsen to boost someone’s profile.  Luckily, Alison Weir once again is at the ready to set things straight.

Scarlett Johannsen does High Melodrama

First of all, a disclaimer.  I really enjoyed the book version of The Other Boleyn Girl.  This is not an entry where I’m going to come over all snooty about Philippa Gregory’s writing … except actually it is.  If I hadn’t enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl so much, then I very probably would not have wasted time and money reading The Constant Princess, The Boleyn Inheritance and various other Philippa Gregory novels which all left me feeling sickened and slightly used.  Historical fiction needs to work as a story without being based on fact – eg. A Game of Thrones works as a plot despite not being based on true events.  Wolf Hall would still be worth reading even if it wasn’t inspired by the real Thomas Cromwell.  Too much of what Philippa Gregory writes just does not work.

Francois I of France

When I first heard of Mary Boleyn, it was as Anne Boleyn’s scarlet woman elder sister who was described by the French King Francois I as his ‘hackney’ who he had ‘ridden’ and who was also mistress to Henry VIII.  Remember again, I was eight.  My mother never really went in for age-related censorship – she also told me all about the Beiruit hostage crisis when I was five.  So I grew up with the popular view of Mary Boleyn – she was a slapper.  Not as clever or as pretty as her sister, but much more available.  Recent television adaptations have tended to have a heavily pregnant Mary Boleyn waddling around in the background as a cautionary tale for Anne should she succumb to Henry VIII’s advances without some kind of nuptial agreement.  Philippa Gregory takes a completely opposing view of the subject.  In her story, Mary is only thirteen when she is seduced by the king, only recently married to her husband William Carey who only consummates the marriage once a fortnight.  She is as close to being a maiden as possible.  Her family manipulate her to suit themselves and her older sister, the more worldly Anne, steals her lover while Mary is in her confinement, giving birth to the king’s child.  Heartbreak, here we come.  So, right from the set off, I knew that Gregory’s version of events had an odour to them.

Weir’s book is brave in trying to set the record straight on a woman whose reputation is based on centuries of rumours being repeatedly embroidered upon.  For a start of, she sets Mary as the elder sister, probably around fifteen years older than Gregory paints her as.  Her affair with Henry VIII comes after very probably having a fling with Francois I but there is no evidence for almost any of the lurid rumours about her.  Nor is there any evidence that Henry VIII had an affair with Mary and Anne’s mother.  It’s funny how writers do seem to have drawn liberally upon their vivid imaginations when discussing Mary.  We know nothing about her, there are no true portraits, we cannot know if she was ‘sweetly simple’ and preferred not to say no.  The likelihood is that her parents were appalled by her conduct rather than eager to capitalise on it.  These people were ambitious professional courtiers, they put the work in, they weren’t sleeping their way to the top.

A possible weakness of this book was the fact that Weir has so little evidence to draw on.  She spends a lot of time rebutting rumours, quoting offending writers at length.  Still, I was impressed by her willingness to admit where she herself had been wrong about Mary.  Much of what was said about Mary’s loose conduct in France is based on gossip decades afterwards from hostile sources, the odds are that Mary’s misdeeds were not notorious.  Weir follows Mary’s life most often by following the timelines of the men in her life, noting bills and even passing references.  Alison Weir is doing the best she can, dealing with what is likely and her case is a compelling one.

Pregnant Catherine Knollys (nee Carey)

The thing that most people remember about Mary Boleyn is that she had the king’s son, while her sister only ever had Elizabeth I.  There is an element of Henry VIII having picked the wrong sister.  Philippa Gregory plays that card very heavily in her story, contrasting the fertile sister and the barren one.  In The Other Boleyn Girl, both of Mary’s children were Henry’s, while in the TV and film adaptations, they both said that the son was and the daughter not, which is very interesting because Alison Weir contends that it was the other way around.  Not only did Henry VIII (or his lackeys) tend to keep a steady stream of money going to Mary from Catherine’s birth onwards, something he had not done around Henry Carey’s birth, but there was another more startling proof.  As in Game of Thrones, the truth can be found ‘in the children’s faces’ – on that point, it did give me a fascinating glimpse into the mind of Jon Arryn when he was going through his investigation.

Back to the point, a portrait of the adult Catherine Carey bears a striking resemblance to her half-sister/cousin Elizabeth and indeed natural father Henry VIII.  I read the Other Boleyn Girl and quietly scoffed to myself at the idea of these extra illegitimate children when Henry VIII made such a fanfare over Henry Fitzroy, but Alison Weir’s book convinced me.  Catherine Carey was a Tudor.  One of the more intriguing pieces of evidence for me was the account of how Henry dealt with one of his more widely acknowledged natural daughters, Ethelreda Malte.  That daughter was the child of a laundress, again she was discreetly supported just as Catherine Carey was and an advantageous marriage arranged, again like Catherine.  The pattern was identical.

The other thing that people tend to remember about Mary Boleyn is that she made a marriage for love.  Mary Boleyn’s first husband died, having never really loved her and turning a blind eye to her sleeping with the King, while Mary’s second husband was a poor yet honest sort who did love her truly.  When the house of Boleyn came crashing down not so very long later, the legend goes that Mary and her husband were left fairly smug and able to inherit all of the Boleyn wealth.  Certainly, Philippa Gregory’s story follows this pattern, where one sister rises, the other passes into obscurity and then vice versa.  Mary Boleyn appeared at court heavily pregnant one summer and calmly confessed to having married William Stafford, a commoner, a man very probably ten years her junior.

William Stafford is the real reason why I have reread The Other Boleyn Girl – even in fictional form he is amazing.  Firstly, he is your classic man of honour in a den of thieves, rescuing the fair damsel in distress (Mary) but then even more than that he is a committed and caring stepfather.  I have mentioned before that I am ridiculously biased in favour of stepfathers – mine became my Dad years ago.  Anybody can be a father, it is easy to love someone who is related to you, it takes a good deal more strength of character to parent someone just because you care.  The nice thing is though that William Stafford really was that kind of man.  He actually did care for his wife’s daughter, there is evidence that their family did business together until Mary’s Carey children were well into their adulthood.  Elizabeth I is on the record as expressing affection for her Stafford uncle.  Anne Boleyn may have cast out her sister for marrying him, but her daughter did not see things the same way.  William Stafford was a man from history who we can truly admire.

Mary herself seems to have recognised her good fortune in meeting Stafford, she wrote to Cromwell at length, partly to complain about her poverty but more to defend herself at length for having made a marriage for love.  It is impossible to misread her meaning however when she wrote that although she might have had a King, she could never have had a man ‘who loved [her] so well’ as William Stafford did.  No wonder Anne was furious, by that point her own marriage to Henry VIII was looking very wobbly.  This story really reinforces romantic values – marry for love, not for money.  Mary’s careless attitude to her personal life does not seem to have endeared her to her own family, but it did mean that she was the only Boleyn child to die in her bed.  I guess you just have to decide what you define as a success …

I liked both these books, Philippa Gregory has written a very enjoyable romance while sticking to the basic facts which are after all, pretty dramatic just by themselves.  Still, I think what made me happiest about Alison Weir’s book was that it ended as being the story of a family, an unconventional one, but still a family.  As Weir points out, Elizabeth I grew up with a positive view of her mother, yet all of her mother’s immediate family were dead and Henry VIII banned anyone from ever mentioning her name.  Elizabeth definitely knew her uncle William Stafford as a child – was she therefore ever close to Mary?  Did Mary tell her about her mother?  It’s a possibility I always discounted, but Weir made me wonder.  Certainly, Elizabeth was very close with her cousin Henry Carey who was fiercely loyal, as was her ‘kinswoman’ Catherine Knollys (Carey).  Unlike her cousins on the Tudor side, the Greys etc., none of the Careys were any threat to Elizabeth’s throne, they were too loyal.  I had never thought of Elizabeth I having family in her government until I read this, so for a book that I thought was going to have an impossibly narrow scope with very little evidence, Alison Weir has made me view the Elizabethan Age in a completely new light.

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by Alison Weir, Philippa Gregory
Published by Random House, Touchstone

4 thoughts on “Review: Mary Boleyn, Alison Weir vs. The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory

  1. Well – the characters written by Philippa Gregory reduce real-life figures to simpering nitwits lacking any kind of consistency or plausibility. It doesn't work for me and I'm afraid I'm not alone! For further explorations of my thoughts on Ms Gregory, please see me The Red Queen review which is one of the worst of hers that I have ever read. I did read The White Queen last year when I had such severe back pain that I could not sleep but in general I just try to avoid her. Hope that clarifies things!

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