“Jane had gone to pray for the dead queen, Anne would dance on her grave.”
Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl.
Back when few people had heard of Game of Thrones, Philippa Gregory had taken the world by storm. On the one hand, The Other Boleyn Girl is like any other medieval court novel: intrigue, sex, men with too much power and women plotting to control them, but on the other it’s so much more. It’s a tale of untold voices and one that questions the glamour of the world it’s set in.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Gregory’s work (spoiler alert), her most popular novel The Other Boleyn Girl takes a well-known story and gives it to you from a unique perspective. Usually the tale of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is given from the king’s perspective; he needed an heir. For others it’s all about the start of the Church of England. If a woman’s voice is going to be heard at all, it will be that of Anne Boleyn herself. Only the dangerous women who dare to interfere in the world of men get mentioned. What Gregory did that was so profound was to tell the story from the perspective of a woman overlooked by everybody: Mary Boleyn.
Gregory didn’t just mention women as a footnote to the history of men, she revelled in their experience and truly made their story the focus of her book. When we read a man, dumbfounded, asking Mary, “And is that your greatest wish, Mary? You, the mistress of the King of England? And your greatest wish is that you could live in a little manor castle and teach your daughter to walk?” we realise how subversive the book really is. It’s a story that raises the concerns of women above those of men, one that accepts that politics will inevitably go on but that it’s not necessarily the most important thing.
But Gregory goes even further. She doesn’t just consider a woman’s perspective but she goes out of her way to reconstruct the voice of those overlooked. In her Author Note, Gregory states: “I am very grateful to the following authors, whose books helped me to trace the otherwise untold story of Mary Boleyn”. She gives us the story of a woman whose sister stole her lover, who himself didn’t give her much choice in the first place. And if she has to reconstruct history a bit and fill in the gaps, she’ll do it because it’s a story that’s worth being told.
Everything about this book stands out from similar stories set in the same era. There is a reason the title is so compelling, The Other Boleyn Girl, the one whose name we don’t even know. That one. She’s the one this story is all about. It captures, as great titles manage to do, not just the plot, characters or setting of the novel, but the soul of it as well. It’s not just intriguing, it gets you to start questioning your prior assumptions, even before you open the first page.
But let us move to genre for a second, because here Gregory played a very subtle game. She understood that she was writing within a sub-genre that had certain expectations. She needed to give her readers the politics, the sweeping historical events, the court intrigue and all the rest. She understood this, gave it to them and I expect quite enjoyed doing so along the way. But she didn’t stop there. All throughout the novel, the protagonist, Mary, questions the value of this court lifestyle and as we watch her sister’s execution with her at the end of the novel, we’re left feeling that she might be right. Gregory didn’t just challenge how we normally view history, but why we look to it to get a macabre, voyeuristic hit at all.
I learnt so much from Philippa Gregory, especially from reading The Other Boleyn Girl. This was a tale that showed a woman’s perspective could and would often be more interesting and exciting than that of a man’s. It showed that telling a story from an unexpected angle and seeing where that leads is a great way to explore the past. It showed the importance of a title which gave the essence of the story and the value of fulfilling as well as subverting genre expectations. All that from just one book! It’s not hard to realise why she’s such a popular figure in Historical Fiction today.
(Photo sourced from the British Museum)