… or thank you Phillipa Gregory for making me fall in love with historical fiction.
Historical fiction has slowly become my go-to genre. Partly for the escapism it offers, or for the opportunity to take a step back into times which have always fascinated me. It’s rich in detail and always full of interesting characters.
The Other Boleyn Girl was a book I had long been aware of, and had dismissed as a romance without much substance. And so I avoided it for years, until one day I found myself volunteering in a charity shop. Midway through the day, and having sorted through a number of black bin bags filled with clothes and bric-a-brac, someone came in to donate three crates of books. Well you can imagine the little flutter of excitement that went through me, and I was soon on my hands and knees rooting through cookbooks, coffee table tomes and finally paperbacks. I filled my arms with a number of books with titles I recognised but had not wanted to splash out on buying new (isn’t that the joy of charity and secondhand shops).
Amongst them was a copy of The Other Boleyn Girl which has since become one of my most treasured reads and has sparked a love affair which has now become somewhat of an obsession.
The novel is the story of Mary Boleyn, the older sister of the infamous Anne, who had an affair with Henry VIII long before he laid eyes upon her sister. We see Mary’s rise in court, and the cruel way in which her family use her to become more powerful and influential in court. Denied any autonomy she makes a decision which will give her freedom, but which is likely to cost her her family.
This is a sexy and decadent novel. It completely evokes the excesses and the intrigues of court. Gregory’s writing is descriptive and her research clearly meticulous. To read this novel is to feel yourself a guest at the Tudor court. Yes it is more glamorous, and much less grimy, than it would have been in reality, but if you want that detail there are a lot of nonfiction accounts of the time. That isn’t why you read books like this one though, is it?
And speaking of nonfiction, factual and accurate this novel is not. Precious little is known about Mary; fiction provides an opportunity to fill in the gaps which history, and historians, have left. Perhaps this is why so much historical fiction focuses on women, though this could also have something to do with the demographics of those who enjoy the genre. The lives of women were rarely seen as of much consequence and so it is up to authors to create, reimagine or tell their stories.