Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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Location: New York, United States

The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Book Review: The Other Boleyn Girl

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory ****

The title of The Other Boleyn Girl pretty much says it all; it’s the story of Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary, who was Henry VIII’s mistress before he became infatuated with Anne. The historical Mary seems to have been very different from the rest of her ambitious family, receiving virtually nothing of value from Henry herself and eventually marrying, after her first husband’s death, a comparatively humble man and becoming the only one of the three Boleyn children to die in bed. In this novel, however, although she is the pawn of her family, pushed into the path of the king in her mid-teens, she is far more.

In Gregory’s portrayal, Mary is an extremely sympathetic character but also a flawed one. She admires Queen Katherine but betrays her not only with Henry, a situation in which she has little choice, but also in more reprehensible ways. She allows her first marriage to become all but meaningless, but eventually, after Henry leaves her for Anne, begins to feel a growing closeness to her husband and, after his death, finds the strength to defy her sister and father to marry a man she loves. Despite her sometimes bitter rivalry with Anne, Mary and her daughter are the only members of the family who defend her upon her arrest. By the end of the book, she has truly become her own woman.

The politics of Henry’s court are also portrayed in all their sordid detail: family gatherings centering on which sister should be pushed into the king’s bed and how to keep her there; the bribery of maids to find out whether the queen has had her period and the secret disposal of miscarried babies; the pimping of his own sisters by their brother George, who has his own shameful secret; the intrigues of councilors and churchmen to achieve the king’s desires and their own ambitions. Yet for the most part, these people are portrayed as living human beings, not angels or monsters.

My main quibble with this book, and the reason it doesn’t rate five stars with me, is its portrayal of Anne Boleyn. Gregory gives a realistic picture of her charm, drive, and relentless ambition to become queen, but other aspects of her character are not delineated as well. When she falls in love with Henry Percy (son of the Earl of Northumberland, not the Duke), I find it hard to believe, although Gregory obviously means for it to be a real passion that affects the course of Anne’s life. Also, even though Mary mentions her (Anne) reading theology with the king as well as her wit, I never get a sense of her real intelligence or of a personality behind the obsessive ambition.

On the whole, however, I recommend this book very highly; despite its almost 700 pages it only took me a few days to get through it and I enjoyed it immensely. It's also encouraged me to get a couple of biographies of Anne from the library to refresh my memory about her historical character.

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