05 January 2007

Book Review: The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory

The Boleyn Inheritance It’s 1539. England’s golden prince has become a grossly overweight axe-happy tyrant, and he’s looking for yet another wife. The first he left to die of poverty, the second he ordered killed by a French swordsman, the third he never visited as she died of a post-partum fever. Yet Anne of Cleves desperately wants to be chosen as wife the fourth.

Anne has personal experience dealing with petty tyrants, in her case her brother William. To escape him she is willing to take her chances with Henry. She is one of three women of the English court who share the narration of The Boleyn Inheritance, one chapter at a time. Her lady-in-waiting Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, saved the Boleyn inheritance but couldn't save her husband George or sister-in-law Anne. Ever so slightly unbalanced, she is haunted by the memories of them and of what she did that was supposed to save them but horribly backfired. Among the maids-in-waiting is vain, frivolous Katherine Howard, Jane's cousin and fellow pawn in the hands of their scheming uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. Together they will discover just how dangerous Henry has become, and that the Boleyn inheritance is not what they thought.

Anyone who knows a little of Tudor history will be aware of who survives and who follows Anne Boleyn’s footsteps to the scaffold. But there is more history to be learned here than just who survived and who didn’t; I knew little of Jane Boleyn, or of Anne of Cleves other than her fate, or how hazardous the Duke of Norfolk could be to one’s health. And for those who don’t know their history, a book as enjoyable as this is a great way to learn. I know so much more now than I did before I read it, but I never once felt like I was enduring a history lesson.

It feels strange to refer to the people in this book as characters, as they are real historical figures. My favourite was Anne of Cleves, determined to make a life for herself out from under her brother’s thumb. But the real highlights were the chapters from the viewpoint of poor, foolish Katherine Howard. Gregory does a wonderful job of creating the thoughts of the spoilt, heedless girl who became Queen at just 16 and incurred Henry’s wrath for behaving like the child that she was. Her need to rehearse anything she was to do before an audience provides one of the book’s most touching scenes.

My wish now is that Philippa Gregory will write a novel about the reign of Katherine Parr, Henry’s last and perhaps luckiest wife, and the one about whom I know least.


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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776