Mary Boleyn is one of the queen’s ladies in waiting at the court of Henry VIII. When the king’s eye falls on Mary, her family is delighted and her parents and uncle decide that it would be a good career move for them if Mary becomes the king’s mistress. This despite the fact that Mary is already married to someone else. Her husband, William Carey, is told that his wife will not be with him any longer as she is destined for greater and better things. Mary’s desires are completely overlooked and although she feels loyal to the queen who has failed to give the king a son, she does as her family bids and becomes the king’s mistress.
Mary gets pregnant twice and gives birth to a daughter and a son. According to the tradition of the time, her children are taken away from her and sent to the family home to be raised by strangers. Mary fights for her rights to see them, and each summer as the court goes away for the summer, Mary is allowed to go to the family estate to be with her children. During one of her absences, Anne catches the king’s eye and he falls in love with her. The Boleyn family now decides that it will be better for them to hedge their bets on Anne, and so Anne is instructed to keep the king interested, while at the same time not becoming his mistress. Anne has her sights set on becoming the new queen and she stirs the king into starting divorce procedures, which result in a break between England and Rome. Anne eventually gets what she wants: the queen is ousted and the king marries her.
However, things turn sour for Anne as well, when she is incapable of giving the king a son. She has one child: a daughter, and all subsequent pregnancies end in miscarriages. She tries to keep her many miscarriages secret from the king, but one day, when she had been pregnant for a while and certain that this time she would be all right, she starts bleeding at a feast, and the whole court is witness to this. She miscarries again, and the child is deformed with an open spine and a big head. This gives the king enough evidence to accuse her of witchcraft and get rid of her as well. Anne is eventually beheaded and the king marries his latest love interest, Jane Seymour.
Meanwhile, Mary successfully escaped the clutches of her family by marrying a “nobody”, allowing her to escape the confines of life at the court and have some happiness of her own.
Philippa Gregory is very good at describing the corruption and scheming that goes on at a royal court. I read another book by her, Earthly Joys, and that was what struck me there as well. I do believe she does extensive research, but she does not feel the need to fill the book with lots of info dumping. I do not read a lot of historical fiction, but I do not think that Philippa Gregory is the best at it, despite her bestselling status. The reason for this is that it very much reads like a book written by a 21st century woman from the point of view of a 16th century woman. It is very hard for me to put my finger on why exactly, but there are a few things that did not ring true.
For example, when Mary has her children, they are taken away from court so she does not have to interrupt her duties to the queen (officially) and the king (unofficially). Although this was common practice for ladies at the court in those days, Mary goes on and on about how shocked she is that this happened and how unfair it is. I agree that this is an unfair practice, but it could hardly have come as a surprise to Mary since she grew up at the court. She and her sister had been shipped off to France at a very early age, so she knew this would happen. Even more so since the children were the king’s illegitimate children.
There were more things I did not particularly like about this book. There was the relationship between Mary and Anne: Anne constantly undermines Mary, treats her like dirt, takes away everything she ever cared for in the world, including her own son, and yet when she finally falls from her self-created pedestal, Mary does not once have a feeling of triumph or justice having been served. The book is written in first person narrative from the point of view of Mary and she often harbours hateful feelings towards her sister. So it would not have been at all unusual for her to think “this is what happens when you convince the king that he can have a divorce”. It takes other characters in the book to spell that out for her. I understand that the relationship between two sisters can be complicated, but Mary’s reaction to the events that led up to Anne’s beheading just did not ring true.
Also, I did not like the emphasis on sex in the book. Of course, the whole history of King Henry VIII is steeped in sex and there is no escaping that, but I do not think that it was necessary to make the whole book revolve around it. Not only the sexual escapades of the king are described in detail, but there is also the sexual preferences of Mary and Anne’s brother George. It is even implied in the book that Anne and George had an incestuous affair in order for her to have a successful pregnancy. Although the real Anne Boleyn does not sound like she was a very pleasant woman, the charge of incest could have been a fabricated charge sprouted from the minds of a king who wants to rid himself of his queen in order to marry his new mistress and the enemies that queen had made for herself, rather than the truth Philippa Gregory makes it out to be.
I usually give an author more than one chance before I stop reading their books, but I am forced to conclude that Philippa Gregory is not the author for me.