Monday, July 21, 2014

A Review: the Other Boleyn Girl

This book by Phillipa Gregory is probably her most notable volume about the Royalty of Britain. I haven't read any of her other works so I have little to compare to in terms of similar author style. However, following my trip to England in 2011, I developed an intense obsession interest about King Henry VIII and his six wives--particularly Queen Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Even though I know the outcome of the story, it didn't stop me from reading and watching. I picked up the Showtime series "The Tudors" since it was originally the one I wanted to watch and I also found the 2008 on-screen movie for "The Other Boleyn Girl". As I mentioned, Henry had 6 wives in total but the most notable coupling was with Anne Boleyn because it changed the the face of marriage, the English monarchy and religion.

It is no secret that King Henry VIII's objective was to have a son in order to have a legitimate Tudor king rule England. Catherine of Aragon was unable to provide him a living male heir, though, I believe she had taken to child six times during their time together; only Princess Mary survived to rule. As with any monarchy, they are surrounded by ambitious courtiers who work hard at gaining favour with the king. Anne Boleyn manages to not only seduce the king, but is Henry's cause for breaking with the Roman Catholic Church and becoming the head of the English church. (They argued that the marriage with Queen Catherine was invalid because she married his brother Arthur first.) But, readers are shown that this game is a dangerous one to play and one could be in the king's favour one moment and then out, the next. Even faster than the relationship was established, it came crashing down and Anne was tried and convicted of adultery, treason and sentenced to death by beheading.

There have been many books written about this ruling monarch and Anne Boleyn. The generally accepted events and details of history are reflected throughout the book as the solid skeleton and the rest of the story is brought to life through Gregory's interpretation and imagination. It's an interesting take to have a secondary character in history take on the narrative of the story. Instead of having the story told by Anne, we see events unfold through the eyes of Anne's sister, Mary. To enhance the sequence of events, each chapter is a specific season and thus range from a few pages in length to a dozen or more.

Since the book is categorized as historical fiction, one can assume the actual thoughts and specific actions that took place; such as the miscarriages of Lady Anne. The horrid dark and criminal actions that the Bolyen children did in the book are all speculation about what might have happened. I'm not a historian and not that well versed in the exact details of the history here but I do know the basics about what happened so the rest, I take as fiction. The two most impressing features that were made very clear to me was the inequality of women and men during the time, and the lack of medical and scientific/biological understanding. Men owned everything and the only way a woman could have a good life was through the man that she was betrothed to, by her family. Women and girls were just pawns in their family's ambition to climb that ladder towards fame, fortune and wealth and if they didn't like that idea, "there would always be another girl ready to take the place of the waning one". Fathers and uncles essentially pimped out their daughters and nieces to advance their own careers and family ambition. The other thing was the extreme lack of medical and biological/scientific understanding. It was crazy for me to read that pregnant women were considered so fragile that their partners (in particular, the king) would take another woman to his bed during her pregnancy and then the last few months she's go into a sort of 'hiding' where they were restricted bed rest and staying indoors in the dark.

The 2008 movie made was a really poor translation of the book and if I could get back that ~90 minutes or so, I'd gladly take it back. The Showtime series on the other hand is very well done despite being adjusted and manipulated for a television audience. The acting by Jonathan Rhys Myers is outstanding and worth watching. He isn't your typical historical Henry VIII (i.e. fat in his later years) but the intensity of character is amazing to witness. The costume and sets are also worth the visual opulence and breath-taking scenes.

When I asked a friend who had read a few of Gregory's books, she mentioned to me that the fiction part tends to be formulaic, predictable and lacking real substance. But, the history and culture that the reader could gain is well worth the compensation. And for those equestrian readers, there were no motorized vehicles so talking about their 'hunters' and the time it took to prepare to travel (by horse), the hunting on horseback... it was nice to imagine what that might have been like ;)

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