The Other Boleyn Girl - Philippa Gregory
Back in the distant dawn of time, approximately 300 years ago, when I was a Bookseller, The Other Boleyn Girl was the du jour book. It topped the bestsellers, was made into a blockbuster Hollywood film and was discussed with much love by our readers group. And, somehow, yes somehow this all passed me by and I never read it. I'm calling this the book that got away, slipped under the radar, right book, wrong time. You get the idea right?
So, I decided to finally bite the bullet and give this a go. How pleased was I that I did!
The book centres on the Boleyn sisters, Mary and her soon to be more famous Anne, and their lives in the court of Henry VIII. At the start of the novel, Henry is married to Catherine of Aragon and is desperate for a son to secure the line of succession. Catherine had a daughter and was to give birth to a son, who sadly died. Mary Boleyn, a young girl is brought to be a lady in Catherine's court. She genuinely feels affection and admiration for Queen Catherine. And also provides a commentary on Catherine's relationship wiht the King, which is affectionate and loving but with the pressure of securing an heir.
Encouraged by her calculating family she soon catches the eye of Henry and quickly becomes his lover all under the watchful gaze of the devoted Catherine. Mary goes on to bear Henry 2 children, one of which is a boy, but because he was born out of wedlock, cannot be a hope to the succession. The writing beautifully demonstrates the genuine feeling and affection between Mary and Henry.
However, her family decide that more direct action is required and persuade Mary to withdraw from Henry's affections in favour of her sister Anne. Anne is fiercely ambitious. She wants more than to be a mistress or mere passing fancy to the King. With the support of Mary and her devoted brother George, the 3 siblings seek to improve the family connections and influence. Anne, as we know eventually becomes Queen but to acheive this has to captivate a King. The King goes seeks to annull his marriage to Catherine, clearing the way for Anne and breaking with the Catholic Church in the process.
I loved this novel. The sheer amount of research undertaken by Philippa Gregory is astonishing. Gregory transports you to the Court of Henry VIII and we witness the alliances, strategies and calculating behaviour by families eager to secure the favour of the King. I loved learning about the Court, how Henry was paranoid about illness, the festivals and religious days and celebrations. All are described in beautiful detail.
There are many underlying themes in the book. The first is loyalty. Loyalty is always to your family first, then the King, then to England. The interests of family always override any of your own. You marry who your family tells you to marry and certainly never just for love. The Boleyn siblings are used to further the interests, influence and acquisitions for the Norfolk family. At times this feels uncomfortable, but Mary and Anne accept this as a normal part of their life. Anne appears truly terrifying in her ambition and treachery but then so is every other member of court. As Anne's star begins to wane, the Seymour family begin to circle and indeed put their own pawn, Jane, for Henry's attention.
Another theme revolves around the book's title. At times both girls are the 'other Boleyn Girl'. Whilst Mary is in favour, Anne holds this title begrudgingly but seeks to improve her lot and as her ambition is limitless, soon ensures that Mary becomes the Other Boleyn Girl instead. Mary however is much easier with this, seeking a life away from court, with her children in the country.
I truly loved this book and went on to read other books about the court of Henry VIII. This is why reading is truly wonderful. It can transport you to different places and times as well as peaking interest in any subject.
So, this is a difficult one to recommend a cake for. But I am going with something heady and a little fragrant. I've always found an eccles cake a bit exotic. (Probably because it is from the other side of the Pennines!). But I would enjoy this with a glass of sherry and spend my time thinking about how I could be Queen of England!