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Literature / The Other Boleyn Girl

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The Other Boleyn Girl is a Historical Fiction novel written by British author Philippa Gregory, very loosely based on the life of 16th-century aristocrat Mary Boleyn. Its publication and success in 2002 launched a new wave of Tudor-centric historical romances.

The Other Boleyn Girl speaks of the little-known sister to Anne Boleyn. Inspired by the life of Mary Boleyn, Gregory depicts the annulment of one of the most significant royal marriages in English history (that of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon) and the great need of a male heir to the throne, though most of the actual history is highly distorted.

Has a sequel, The Boleyn Inheritance.

The book was adapted into two movies: One was a TV movie released in 2003, starring Natascha McElhone as Mary, Jodhi May as Anne and Jared Harris as Henry VII and the other in 2008, starring Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, and Eric Bana, which received a theatrical release.

This book has examples of:

  • Aborted Arc: Anne forcibly adopts Mary's son Henry so that she has a male heir, and occasionally reminds Mary about it in order to get a jab in at her, but when Henry begins to turn against Anne for not giving him a son, she never brings up her adopted ward.
  • And There Was Much Rejoicing: The reaction to Queen Catherine's death from the king and almost the whole court. Mary is disgusted by the masque that Henry and Anne throw in celebration, but Uncle Howard forces her to stay in order to show family unity.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Both Catherine and Anne's marriages to Henry eventually devolve into this, as he grows tired of each of them in turn and seeks to be rid of them. As the book concludes, Mary privately fancies that this is what's in store for Jane Seymour: "I had seen two queens married to Henry and neither of them had much joy of it."
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Anne realises this as the story progresses; she becomes queen, but she doesn't enjoy it for long, if at all. The common people despise her even before she marries Henry. From the moment she gives birth to Elizabeth rather than the son everyone was expecting, she's under enormous pressure from all sides to produce a male heir, and she suffers several miscarriages. Other noble families constantly seek to supplant her with their own daughters, now that they've seen how relatively easy it is to unseat a queen. And once she and Henry have license to be physically intimate on a regular basis, he gradually loses interest in her and eventually grows to resent and then hate her, blaming her for all his misfortunes. But, as Mary bluntly tells Anne: "You chose to be queen. I warned you it wouldn't bring you joy."
  • Berserk Button: Better not remind Anne of her failed marriage to Henry Percy. She learns to suppress her feelings as the book goes on, though.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Anne and George are dead and the Boleyn family is utterly disgraced and will never recover, but Mary gets to live Happily Ever After with her husband and children, far away from the court (which is where she was always happier during the course of the story).
  • Book Ends: The story begins and ends with a scene where Mary is attending a public execution of one of her relatives, expecting the king to give a pardon out at the last minute. She's wrong both times.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Between George and Anne. Well, maybe. It's left very vague as to what actually happened, though considering their unusual closeness and Anne's desperation for a son in the latter days of her marriage, it's at least possible. Both were accused of incest in real life, but it was clearly a trumped up charge.
  • Betty and Veronica: Mary is Betty, Anne is Veronica. Anne is also the Veronica to Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour's Betty.
  • Catch-22 Dilemma: Anne needs to cement her position and ensure Henry's continuing affections by having a son, but as time goes on Henry grows less and less inclined to sleep with her and sometimes there are periods where he outright refuses to do so (such as everyone thinking she's already with child or it being the season of Lent) making it ever more difficult for her to get pregnant, but the longer she's unable to have a son the more displeased Henry grows with her...
  • Decadent Court: The Tudor court has spies everywhere and is full of people scheming constantly to get the king's favour who will stab you in the back at a moment's notice. Your closest relatives think of you only as a pawn in a chess game, especially if you are a girl. And it grows even more licentious and dangerous once Anne becomes queen.
  • Death Glare: In one scene when Anne becomes jealous of the king flirting with other women, she looks at him "with a glare which would have frightened a lesser man".
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Some of the sexual metaphors and phrases spoken by the characters would seem demeaning and shocking if someone said them to people today. For instance, today you probably wouldn't tell your sister not to let her husband get her 'in pup.' Or refer to your sisters being in heat. Or tell someone that you got your wife 'in foal' just months after marriage.
  • Double Standard: It's perfectly acceptable for Henry to have a mistress, and many noble families jostle to try and make one of their daughters his current 'favourite'. Catherine has to smile and bear it, even when said favourite is one of her own ladies. Notably when it's Anne's turn to be the one cheated on, she gets angry at Henry's philandering and calls him out on it; he retorts by slut-shaming her for all the 'tricks' she used to keep his interest before they were married.
  • Dramatic Irony:
    • When Anne gives birth to Elizabeth instead of the son that Henry is desperate for, both she and her family are distraught and Anne's blamed for not having a boy; Anne herself says "What good is a girl to us?" Nowadays readers will know that Henry was responsible for the gender of his children, not his various wives, and that Elizabeth turned out to be the most successful member of the Tudor dynasty.
    • Anne curses Jane Seymour when it's evident that Jane is angling to replace her and become queen in her turn, saying she hopes Jane dies in childbirth giving Henry a son and that the boy dies too. Mary wonders at the end of the book whether the curse will come true, while readers are already aware that Jane will die from giving birth to Edward, who'll also die young.
  • The Determinator: Deconstructed and Reconstructed with Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. Mary tells Catherine that Anne and Henry may be getting along so well because they are both this trope and a lot alike. When Catherine points out that she is determined as well, Mary tells her that she's different from them by being a lot less selfish and willing to put others before the goals she is determined to achieve.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Mary. She ends up living happily with her loving husband and her children on a farm. Her siblings are not so fortunate.
  • English Rose: Anne describes Mary (albeit mockingly) as "sweet and open and English and fair" at one stage, and Henry VIII himself refers to her as "my little English rose". But at the same time the concept is deconstructed; although Mary is genuinely more naïve and sweet than most other characters (which isn't saying much) she admits to Anne that the 'English Rose' persona is very much a façade she uses to entice the king.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: The story's narrator is Mary but the real main character is Anne.
  • Heir Club for Men: One of the main reasons Henry wants a divorce (and one of the main driving forces of the whole plot) is because he's desperate to have a legitimate son to inherit the throne.
  • Hidden Depths: Jane Seymour is her family's pawn to try and usurp Anne's position as queen, but she does seem to legitimately care for Catherine of Aragon. When the news comes that Catherine has died, Jane defies Anne's whim in order to go and pray for her, and she's the only member of the court to openly mourn the former queen (even Mary, who loved Catherine, doesn't dare go against her family) despite the fact that at this point, there's nothing she could gain from this show of piety.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Mary. What we know of the real Mary (which is admittedly precious little) doesn't jibe very well with the Mary Sue-like character Gregory has given her.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • Although the real Anne Boleyn was no doubt ambitious, she also did a lot of good in her life, such as supporting many charities, sheltering Protestants fleeing from other countries, promoting artistic endeavours, and showing an unusually keen interest in her daughter's upbringing. Furthermore, most historians now agree that she was almost certainly innocent of the crimes she was accused of, including incest with her brother. Anne also gets a Historical Coward Upgrade; the real Anne faced her execution with boldness, dignity, and faith, while Gregory's Anne is a snivelling, hysterical basket case.
    • Gregory almost seems to have a personal grudge against Jane Parker. The sequel to this book, The Boleyn Inheritance takes this up to eleven.
  • History Repeats: Anne effectively usurps Catherine's role as queen in court even in the years before Henry divorces his first wife, and takes spiteful delight in telling Mary to inform Catherine that she's being left behind while the court goes on progress. Years later Anne's only living child is a daughter, she has to endure being left behind by the court as she recovers from her final miscarriage (Mary even recalls what happened with Catherine as she sees Anne forlornly watching them leave) and she's powerless to stop her husband and ladies abandoning her for a woman who clearly wishes to take her place.
  • Freudian Trio: The three siblings, with Anne as Ego, Mary as Superego, and George as Id.
  • Hoist by Their Own Petard: Anne schemes to become queen, and eventually ousts Catherine and takes her place. All the noble families take note of how relatively easy it is to topple a queen - and begin scheming to get their own daughters to supplant Anne in Henry's affections. Anne's now in the exact same position that Catherine was before her, trying desperately to keep Henry's interest and give birth to a son while her rivals follow her example and tempt Henry by keeping him at arms' length and refusing to sleep with him. Worst of all, Anne turned Henry on to Protestantism which made him break with the Pope, and he now thinks his whims are God's will.
  • Lap Pillow: Mary lets William Stafford sleep with his head in her lap when he's suffering from seasickness. He's faking it.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Mary has two healthy children who were fathered by Henry and later has another daughter with her second husband, with relatively straightforward and easy pregnancies throughout, but because of her elder daughter and son's illegitimacy they can't inherit the throne. Meanwhile, both Catherine of Aragon and Anne suffer multiple miscarriages and stillbirths, and each only have one surviving legitimate daughter. And of course it's unthinkable that the issue might lie with Henry and highly dangerous to even suggest it; at one point George, frantic for Anne's sake, says that it's Henry who can't sire a healthy child and is quickly told to shut up by Uncle Howard.
  • Lonely at the Top: As Anne is unable to secure her position with a son, she grows ever more isolated and lonely at court. Rubbing salt into the wound is knowing that Mary is happily married and once more with child while living in relative poverty, while Anne is queen of one of the greatest courts in Europe but frightened, alone and unhappy.
  • Marry for Love: Eventually, Mary does this, with Sir William Stafford.
  • Mature Work, Child Protagonists: Mary Boleyn, the main protagonist and narrator, is fourteen years old at the beginning of the novel (she's thirteen during the prologue) and it's made clear right from the first page that it's not a kids' book when Mary witnesses the beheading of her uncle Stafford. Mary is already married at age twelve (and the marriage was physically consummated at once rather than waiting until she was older), becomes the king's mistress on her family's orders and later has children by him. The book features graphic sexual references and some disturbing scenes such as executions, Anne Boleyn's multiple miscarriages and stillbirths, possible incest, Mary's husband commanding her to sleep with him (he stops when he sees her discomfort, but still) and Mary suffering from post-partum depression.
  • Morton's Fork: When Henry starts putting out feelers for a new mistress after he and Anne have been married for a while, Anne is understandably furious and throws several tantrums. George and Mary advise her that the king's growing tired of her temper, something that turned him on when they were courting but which he doesn't want in a wife; they stress that he might well come to resent her and she needs to tone it down, pointing to Catherine's approach of tolerating her husband's affairs and looking the other way. Anne reminds them that this approach didn't work out for Catherine, if she does the same thing Henry will grow tired of her regardless and either way she'll be losing his affections to other women.
  • Original Position Fallacy: Anne seems to have assumed that she would be able to maintain her role as the triumphant queen once she replaced Catherine of Aragon in Henry's affections. In truth, as soon as she ascends the throne, practically every noble family in England makes note that it can be done and starts trying it themselves. Since Anne’s tactics to keep the king’s attention involved being flirtatious while limiting actual physical contact to the minimum, and denying him 'full consummation' until she was absolutely certain that he would marry her, she finds it difficult to maintain his interest once he has her and various ladies proceed to copy her approach of playing hard to get. Anne also made the age-old error of believing the man who'd kept several mistresses throughout his first marriage would remain faithful to her, and is enraged when Henry starts getting up to his old tricks with the ladies of her chamber.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Subverted between Mary and William Carey. After the king loses interest in her he starts to seduce her, which almost succeeds when he dies of an illness.
  • Period Shaming: Used to underscore the misogyny of Tudor England. After giving birth to her second child, Mary bleeds heavily for weeks afterwards. Her sister Anne has to help her bathe and is less than sympathetic, openly calling her "disgusting" because the bathwater gets bloody. Unsurprisingly, this doesn't help Mary's post-partum depression. When Mary is summoned to have sex with the king, she has to shove cotton into her vagina to hide her bleeding; she's told she can't refuse the king but that he'd also be repulsed by her blood.
  • Please Spare Him, My Liege!: Mary considers doing this to save Anne, but her husband talks her out of it by pointing out that if she does try approaching Henry, she'll likely just share the fate of her siblings.
    • Played straight in the movie. It doesn't work.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: The king is often said to behave like a child. He's also responsible for the deaths of a lot of people, including Anne when she fails to give him a son.
  • Russian Reversal: In one dialogue between Mary and William, she says:
    "You don't leave the king. He leaves you."
  • Scrubbing Off the Trauma: Anne takes an extremely hot bath and rubs her skin raw the morning after she takes a potion from a witch to induce a miscarriage. She believes the baby to be dead, but probably still harbors guilt on the offchance that it may have been alive and the male heir she needed to bear to secure her position as Queen.
  • Stepford Smiler: Everyone in court is this, and it is expressed several times in the novel. The most prominent example is when Mary has to dance with the king just after the birth of her son, when she is still bleeding from the birth, suffering from post-natal depression, and desperately misses her children. She describes her smile as 'gargoyle-like'.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Anne vs. Mary for the right to Henry's hand. Later on, after Anne 'wins' and becomes queen, she's deeply envious of Mary for having given birth to three healthy children and for having found true happiness with a 'nobody', while Anne's growing ever more isolated in a court that's turning against her.
  • Thicker Than Water: Mary's love for her sister always overcomes their rivalry. The only people Anne can trust are her siblings Mary and George.
  • Title Drop: Several times. Both Mary and Anne are referred to as "the other Boleyn girl" at various points, depending on which one the king currently favors.
  • Understatement: Mary describes Anne's reaction of her getting married to William Stafford as "not best pleased".
  • Unwanted Spouse: Jane Parker, wife of George Boleyn; and also Catherine of Aragon to Henry VIII. And eventually Anne as well.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: In the execution scene at the beginning Mary thinks the king will pardon the man being executed. Her mother calls her a fool for that. She doesn't seem to learn, as she goes through the exact same thoughts at Anne's execution at the end.