Discussion Questions – ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ by Philippa Gregory

Mary Boleyn
Mary Boleyn

1. Why does Philippa Gregory choose Mary to narrate the story? Keeping in mind the relationship between the observer and those observed, is Mary a good, trustworthy, narrator? As Mary ages, how is her loss of innocence reflected in her telling of the story?

I think the importance in Mary Boleyn narrating the story comes from her journey, from a relatively innocent girl to a mature woman who has seen more than her share of political intrigue, loss and death. I don’t think Mary is an unbiased narrator, but I do think that she reports events as she sees them, without any embellishment. I think that Mary was chosen to be the narrator because she is an outsider, even within her own family, and so can be more objective than those directly involved in the plots of the court. Her loss of innocence is reflected in her sister’s rise to power. When Mary had the King’s favour she believed that nothing could go wrong, but once Anne had taken him from her, she lost her innocence and realised just what a dangerous place the world was. Through the divorce, Mary had to support her sister, and saw just how hard it was to keep the King at bay, but still interested. Her loss of innocence in complete when she sees her sister executed. Because she believes until the last minute that a reprieve must come, it was more of a shock for her when it actually happened. But at least she had Stafford to comfort her. You can easily see at which parts of the story Mary is questioning herself and her naive view of the world. She didn’t think that Henry or Anne would go through with the divorce and their marriage and so Mary questions herself, and makes us question her too.

2. Look at the exchange between Mary and her mother at the end of the first chapter. How does the author foreshadow what is to come? How do the events of the first chapter frame the entire story?

The key line at the end of the first chapter is the very last line: “There is no room for mistakes at court”. This overshadows the entire novel. Buckingham was only the beginning. Further falls and executions follow. Mary would have already seen the fate of the King’s sister, Mary, when she married against her brother’s wishes to the Duke of Suffolk. It will again be echoed in the deaths of Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More and Bishop Fisher. Wolsey didn’t get the King his divorce and so he had to go, regardless of how good a servant and friend he had been to the King. More and Fisher refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, and this went against the King and so they also had to go. The most important case of mistakes at court was in the case of Anne Boleyn. She was careless in her flirting and confrontation and this gave Henry and Cromwell the ammunition they needed to bring her and the Boleyn faction down. It was a careless mistake that would end her life, and forever change the life of her child, Elizabeth I. Mary probably had a life-changing experience because of a mistake at court – she married without her family’s consent and so had to endure their wrath. However, Mary didn’t seem to see it as a mistake because she was in love and wanted nothing more than to be with her family. These events in the first chapter frame the whole story because Mary is always aware that the King’s favour is incredibly changeable and one mistake can end an entire family’s ambitions and position. Gregory foreshadows the end of the novel by claiming that Mary thought he would have a reprieve. She hopes for the same for Anne, but it doesn’t happen. Henry has changed too much and his love for Anne turned to hate in his quest for a male heir.

3. Discuss the Boleyn family’s scheming and jockeying for favour in the court. In light of these politics, discuss the significance of Mary’s explanation that she had “a talent for loving [the king]” (page 119). Is this simply a girl’s fantasy? Why does Mary call herself and George “a pair of pleasant snakes” (page 131)?

Philippa Gregory's 'The Other Boleyn Girl' (2001).
Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ (2001).

I think that the Boleyn family’s jockeying for favour and scheming wasn’t just something that was a part of their family – it was a part of every family within the court. Parents fought to arrange the best matches for their children, particularly their daughters, and also tried to push their daughters at the king for favour, land and titles. I think that Mary may have had a talent for loving the king – in this novel it certainly seems like it, and she really feels betrayed by Anne when she steals the king from Mary. Mary appears to have really loved him, but perhaps she fell in love too easily. She seems to have been able to tell what Henry wanted and when, and knew exactly how to talk to him, however. I don’t think it is a girl’s fantasy. Mary was just very good at being in love and gave herself over wholeheartedly to it. I think Mary describes her and George as “pleasant snakes” because they are still at the mercy of their family ambition, but they go about it pleasantly without ruffling too many feathers, as Anne and their father do.

4. On page 29, Mary professes her love and admiration for Queen Katherine and feels she can’t betray her. In what ways are her honourable ideals compromised as she embarks on her adulterous affair with the king? Recount the whirlwind of events preceding Anne’s becoming queen. Reading page 352, do you agree that “from start to finish” Mary “had no choice” but to betray Queen Katherine by taking the queen’s letter to her uncle?

King Henry VIII was such a force and such a vibrant personality in the English court that women fell at his feet, and it was almost suicide to refuse him. When Anne refused him, it was the first time for Henry that a woman hadn’t just fallen at his feet. Mary Boleyn wasn’t really a strong person and didn’t have the backbone to say no. If historical rumours are true, it seems that Mary Boleyn fell in love very easily, and gave her favours too easily. Her relationship with Queen Katherine is naturally affected by her affair with the King, although no doubt Katherine understands Mary’s own position – that she couldn’t refuse. I think Mary’s ideals of court life are compromised at the time when she enters Henry’s bedchamber for the first time. She is no longer a court innocent, but an integral part of the machine. Whether she liked it or not, she became dependent on the King. I think Mary did have a choice about taking the Queen’s letter to Norfolk, but I think that both sides would have been disappointed had she not done it. Katherine needed the letter as a decoy to get her own messenger out of the country. Norfolk needed the letter to cement the King’s goodwill and to keep him close. Mary needed the letter because Norfolk had told her that it was the only way she would be able to spend the summer at Hever with her children. I can’t understand a mother’s love but I would guess it is all-consuming and a mother would do anything to see her children, especially when she is forced to live apart from them.

5. Consider pages 38 and 82. How does the author create sexual tension? How do the narrator’s thoughts and feelings communicate the attraction between her and the king? Why is this important to the story of The Other Boleyn Girl?

Sexual tension is created in the first instance by Mary’s innocence in sexual matters. She has laid with her husband only a handful of times and doesn’t have the amount of experience that Henry does. The first encounter is Henry trying to make Mary feel at ease, and you know that a further encounter will happen soon. In a lot of ways, it is the space between the encounters which creates sexual tension, because you read about how close they become and their public relationship, all the while building up tension for the private relationship. It is this contrast between the public and private which creates sexual tension. Henry and Mary’s conversation at the jousting green is the first essence we have of what they could be. Mary’s inane wonderings about the feeling of his moustache and her involuntary admission that she wanted to kiss him help to set up the atmosphere for when they do eventually come together. The tension is also built for the fact that Mary is being instructed by her family. It makes you wonder how the tension will end up; are Mary’s feelings truly involved? It becomes obvious that they are.

6. On page 85, Anne tells Mary, “I am happy for the family. I hardly ever think about you.” Do you think she’s telling the truth? Later, Anne says to her sister, “We’ll always be nothing to our family” (page 310). Do you think she believes this, especially given her overwhelming desire to advance her own status?

I think Anne was trying to cover up her own despair at her lack of a marriage and prospects, jealous of Mary’s success at court, and with her being married before her. I think Anne is “happy for the family” because the family’s rise means her rise as well, meaning a better husband and alliance for her when she does marry. I think Anne does think about Mary and worry about her, as any sister would. I don’t think she was as close to Mary as she was to George, but nevertheless she seems to worry about her, waiting up for her until she returns to their room, for one thing. Even when Mary married against Anne’s wishes and kept it secret, Anne still forgave her and let her go back to court, which shows the bond between the siblings, in this novel at least. I think when Anne says “we’ll always be nothing to our family” what she means is, as young women, their personal wants, fears and emotions don’t matter, because they should be acting in the best interests of the family – like Mary taking the King to her bed in order to procure titles and land for her family. Essentially that is the reason why Anne insisted on marriage to the King; she wanted the wealth, power and status that came with it. I think her emotions did become involved, but at first it was the material things that she wanted. I think Anne knew that personal considerations had to come second, but Mary was different in that she wanted to go where her heart led, rather than her head.

Anne Boleyn National Portrait Gallery.
Anne Boleyn National Portrait Gallery.

7. Why does Mary say, “I felt like a parcel…” (page 60)? What happens later to make Mary think she’s no longer a “pawn” of the family, but “at the very least, a castle, a player in the game” (page 173)?

The turning point is the point at which Mary falls pregnant. As she could be carrying the King’s son, she becomes an important person, as all of her family’s hopes could rest with her and the child. If Mary had a son, the family knew that it would mean more lands and titles for them, and preferment at court. It could also mean that the Boleyns would be ancestors to an heir to the throne if Fitzroy died young (as he did) and Henry didn’t have a legitimate male heir. There were also rumours that Henry would divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Mary Boleyn if she did give birth to a son, because it would give him automatically a male heir. I think that was also partly Anne’s thinking when she took on Mary and Henry’s son, Henry Carey, as a ward. She was covering her own back, but it didn’t actually do any good at all. I think Mary felt like a “parcel” because first she was foisted on William Carey as a convenient marriage, and then she wasn’t allowed to go to her husband once at court, because her family said she had to be available for the king. It must have felt like she was just being passed around to whoever would benefit the family the most. Anne was never like that – she made her own destiny with Percy, for example. Mary’s life didn’t become truly her own until she married William Stafford, explicitly against her family’s wishes, because up until that point she was still at the mercy of Anne in particular.

8. Look at the exchange between Mary and Anne about the king on page 72. Do you agree with Anne when she tells Mary that “you can’t desire [the king] like an ordinary man and forget the crown on his head.” What does this statement reveal about Anne’s nature? And what does it reveal about Mary’s?

I think that Anne was generally very grasping and ambitious, always looking for something better. She began by aiming for an earl (Henry Percy of Northumberland) and when that fell through she turned her sights to the King and the crown. On the other hand, Mary is a more realistic person, realising just how out of reach the crown is, and how much Anne would have to persevere to get it. She seems to realise that it won’t all be plain sailing for them, more than Anne and Henry themselves seem to realise. I don’t think that position and desire are as one, although of course I have no experience of it. I think Mary did desire Henry as a man as he had a lot to recommend him – at the time of their affair Henry was athletic, handsome and had a vibrant personality. He wasn’t the fat and injured man of later years and it was perfectly plausible that Mary fell in love with him, as I believe Anne eventually did. I think for Anne, at least at first, all she wanted was the crown, and when she realised she desired him it was a bonus. I think for Anne they couldn’t be separated because she saw one as necessary to the other. The desire was a bonus for getting the crown, and the crown was necessary to heighten her desire for Henry.

9. In general, what are your impressions of the sisters? Keep in mind Anne and Mary’s discussion on page 104: “So who would come after me?…I could make my own way.” Also look at page 123, when Anne says, “Hear this, Mary…I will kill you.” Why are these statements significant, particularly given their timing?

I think the two sisters work as good foils for each other. They are complete opposites. Mary is the one ruled by her heart and Anne by her head. Mary falls in love easily, and loves her children more than anything else. She just seems to want to live a normal life away from the court and the intrigue, which she does finally manage after Anne’s execution in 1536. On the other hand, Anne wanted wealth, power and position above all else. She tried first with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and when that failed she captured the king instead. Mary was happy to settle but Anne always wanted more and that led to her downfall – she was never truly happy. Mary was happy. Mary does manage to “make her own way”, though none of her family thought that she would. Anne also makes her own way though in a different way to her sister. Anne would always be remembered, whereas, if it hadn’t been for Mary’s affair with Henry VIII, only serious scholars would know her name. Anne’s ambition prompts her to force out opinions maybe not held by her, or only in the heat of the moment, ultimately her downfall. I think the fact that Anne has to ask Mary to lie for her about the Percy affair demonstrates how vulnerable her position is, and how strong Mary’s favour is, which is what Anne wants for herself. Anne didn’t want to be at the mercy of her parents and uncle when it came to a marriage to her. Mary had already done what they wanted once, and wanted to make her own decision the second time. Both are equally admirable in their own way, going after what they wanted.

10. Share some of the characteristics that you like about historical fiction. For you, what aspect of The Other Boleyn Girl stands out the most? How does the book change your impressions of life in King Henry VIII’s court? Looking at the letter on page 275, discuss the level of corruption in the court. Does it surprise you? Were you aware of Anne’s dogged and exhausting pursuit of the king? Did the way Anne became queen shock you?

What I really admire about historical fiction is how it manages to get people who have previously shown no interest in history to read and research around it. However, I do also think that fiction books often gloss over the facts, policies and events, and focus more on the romances and executions to draw a reader in. Non-historians probably find this a good thing, but for people who have studied the periods in question it is a little annoying. I also like how historical fiction tends to be written from the perspective of a person directly involved, in this case Mary Boleyn. I think this is also my favourite aspect of the book because Mary is often maligned as a whore and pushed aside in favour of her more famous sister, but Mary is actually interesting in her own right. The book didn’t really change my opinions of Henry VIII’s court; for me it has always been a place of scheming and factionalism and people vying for the King’s favour. What I do wish is that the book had tried harder with some of the visuals – setting especially. I think corruption was a key part of Henry’s court because the king was so changeable, and sometimes you had to do things to keep in favour. It’s not really surprising, because that’s just how the world worked back then, particularly within the court. I think Anne was a very ambitious and headstrong woman and I think that once she had set her sights on becoming queen, and once she had caught Henry she didn’t have any choice but to continue because she wouldn’t accept failure and her reputation would have been ruined anyway.

11. How do you feel about the idea that a woman had to be married before she could bed the king? What do you think about the king changing the laws to suit his needs? When Anne states that “Nothing will ever be the same for any woman in this country again,” examine why she could believe she would be exempt from the same treatment. In other words, why didn’t she realize that “when she overthrew a queen that thereafter all queens would be unsteady” (page 519)? Do you think the family realized this but persevered anyway?

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540

I think a woman had to be married in order to bed the king because it protected both the woman and the king. If the woman fell pregnant it meant that the king didn’t necessarily have to recognise the child (particularly if it was a girl) and wasn’t responsible for the raising for it. It also meant that the woman wasn’t an innocent, and was less likely to be maligned. I think Henry changed laws to suit his own purpose because he was used to getting what he wanted, so when Anne denied him he needed to prove that he always gets what he wants. They say that if you’re denied something it just makes you want it more. With Anne’s triumph and the changes to the law that Henry VIII made in her favour meant that wives could be worried that their husbands would divorce them, whereas before that would have been impossible. Anne gave hope to mistresses that they could marry the man they love. Anne probably did realise that overthrowing one Queen would make all after unsteady because she was a very intelligent woman and no doubt thought it all through. I don’t think she cared. She probably saw it as worth it, and all she had to do to secure her throne was to produce a son. She couldn’t have imagined that she would fail, and she obviously didn’t think that it would take seven years for Henry to obtain an annulment. No doubt her family also made the same deductions.

12. Discuss Mary’s evolution of thinking from when she realizes that after Queen Katherine’s departure, “from this time onward no wife…would be safe” with her later thought (on page 468) that “the triumph of Anne, the mistress who had become a wife, was an inspiration to every loose girl in the country.” What does this say about Mary’s state of mind? Is she being a reliable narrator here?

What is particularly interesting about Mary’s thoughts at this time is that she could have had no notion that she would be proved right by her sister’s downfall. Jane Seymour used Anne’s own tactics against her to persuade Henry VIII to divorce Anne and marry her. Everything comes from wealth, ambition and power, and Anne was a victim not just of the Seymours’ ambition, but also of her own. If she hadn’t reached so high she wouldn’t have fallen so low. Mary seems to be wiser than her years, realising the implications of Anne’s rise to power, not just on Anne and Mary, but on the country in general. Henry VIII had realised his own power and wasn’t against using it, which had until this time been kept in check by Cardinal Wolsey. Women across the country were persuaded that they could get the men they wanted, whether they were married or not, and that marriage was always a possibility. Mary isn’t an entirely reliable narrator because she has a vested interest in the success of the Boleyns. However, she is also very despondent, and seems to realise the danger that her family is in. She begins taking steps to protect herself and her children as far as she can. Mary’s state of mind skips to her own situation. She was a penniless widow and men would want to take advantage of her. She wasn’t willing to let that happen.

13. On page 303, George exclaims to Mary, “You cannot really want to be a nobody.” Why is this such a revolutionary idea in Henry’s court, and for the Boleyns in particular? What should the response have been to Mary’s question to Anne (page 330) about the rewards of Anne’s impending marriage to the king: “What is there for me?”

I think it was such a revolutionary idea for someone to want to be a “nobody” because children born into noble families were brought up to want to make a good match for themselves and their families. I think Mary Boleyn, however, was different because she didn’t receive as much of her parent’s attention and bounty as Anne and George. George, obviously, was the boy, the heir. Anne was described as being intelligent and sexual, and got a very good education and was finished at the court in the Low Countries and France. In comparison, it appears as though Mary Boleyn was sidelined. Perhaps she got used to the idea that she would be a nobody, even with her Boleyn blood. The Boleyns had risen from humble backgrounds just fifty years before Anne’s birth to court circles just in her father’s generation. It appeared that social climbing was in their blood, so it is understandable that George was shocked that Mary would be content to be a nobody. In the end, she got it right, as she was the only one to really survive Anne’s downfall. Mary asked what the rewards for her would be from Anne’s marriage to Henry. She had no husband after 1528 and was raising two young children alone until her marriage to William Stafford. She also didn’t get enough money to live on. All she could hope for was a pension and to remarry. What she got was so much better. She got a husband who loved her, a stable home for her children, and a husband not afraid of her family as well. Plus, she survived when her entire family fell. Her parents died within just a few years of Anne’s fall. Mary inherited everything.

14. In King Henry’s court, homosexuality was a crime. Why do you think George essentially flaunted his preference? What do you make of the intimate kiss between George and Anne that Mary witnessed? What is the impetus behind George and Anne’s relationship? Discuss whether or not you believe that George slept with Anne so that she might have a son, and why?

I think George Boleyn flaunted his preference for men simply because he could. I think partly it was to rile his wife, who he hated, and because he thought himself untouchable with his sister as Queen, but obviously that wasn’t true. I believe that, if George was in fact homosexual as he was in the book (which I don’t believe) that he was in love, as I believe that in this particular novel he loved Francis Weston. I think that the George and Anne kiss that Mary witnessed was to try and do something that they didn’t want to do. When Anne asked George to sleep with her to conceive a child, they crossed a line, and I think that the kiss was to try and get themselves in the mood to cross that line entirely. I think they were genuinely affectionate and loving towards each other, but just as brother and sister, and nothing more. In the novel, they were driven to nearly commit incest by the dire circumstances in which they found themselves. Anne knew she would at the very least be divorced, like Katherine of Aragon was, but quite possibly something even worse, as eventually happened. I think what drove them was their love for each other. They were as close as brothers and sisters are in the present day and would die for each other without a second thought. It was unusual in those times and I think that is where the incest accusation came from. I do not believe that they were guilty of the charges against them because I think they both did have some kind of moral code, though it didn’t extend to religion and the divorce, which was driven by ambition. I don’t believe they would have gone that far.

Katherine of Aragon in later life, miniature by Lucas Hornebolte.
Katherine of Aragon in later life, miniature by Lucas Hornebolte.

15. Why do you think George declares that Anne is “the only Boleyn anyone will ever know or remember” (page 410)? Was that true for you before you read The Other Boleyn Girl? What about now?

I think Anne is the Boleyn most remembered because she did what no one else had done before – she was a commoner who persuaded a king to fall in love with her, divorce his wife, and marry her. She kept him at bay supposedly for six years yet he didn’t back away. Mary Boleyn’s name is only known because of her affair with Henry VIII and the possibility that her children, Catherine and Henry Carey, could actually be the King’s. George Boleyn’s name is synonymous with adultery and incest, and his name is probably only remembered as an accomplice to Anne’s own crimes. If Anne Boleyn wasn’t so well-known I doubt that the Boleyns would really have any place in history. Mary would probably be the only one half-remembered. Yes, Thomas Boleyn was a great politician and statesman but his name is barely remembered even in connection with Anne. Having done a lot of research on Anne Boleyn for both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, I was already familiar with the background of her life, including that of her family – her father, mother, brother, sister and her Howard relatives. After reading The Other Boleyn Girl it has made my interest in Mary Boleyn more pronounced, particularly with respect to her children supposedly by the King, as they are often neglected in historical scholarship. Anne was such an important figure because she forever changed the face of the English monarchy and Church by her role in the divorce. If George did really say something to that effect, he probably also thought that the charges against her would ensure her place in the history books, so unusual and abominable were they.

16. After Anne is arrested, Mary pleads for her by saying, “We did nothing more than that was ordered. We only ever did as we were commanded. Is she to die for being an obedient daughter?” (page 650). What is your reaction to these arguments? Did Henry have no choice but to sentence her to death?

I don’t think these particular arguments that Mary puts forward are entirely truthful because Anne chose to chase Henry – to lead him on and then pull back. In a lot of ways she was much more ambitious than her family. She knew what she wanted and went for it without compunction. She could have pulled back at any moment but didn’t. Mary did more than was ordered. At first, yes, it was what was ordered, but then Mary’s heart and emotions became involved, and she couldn’t help but fall further. I think Anne was the same. Once her emotions were engaged she couldn’t back away. I don’t think it bothered Henry so much that Anne was an obedient daughter; it was that he saw her as a false wife. Possibly also the idea that she did as she was told grated on him. At first he thought Anne wanted him for the man he was. This revelation proved that Anne was told by her family to get the power and position marriage to the King could provide. It grated on Henry’s pride and his manhood. I think Henry did have a choice in Anne’s death. However, if he let her live, there would be no doubt that she would fight for her daughter’s rights as Katherine of Aragon had done, and Anne had no powerful relatives to protect her. It was neater all round if Henry had the marriage annulled then executed Anne for good measure.

3 thoughts on “Discussion Questions – ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ by Philippa Gregory

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