Cannonball Read V: The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory
Historical novels don’t half get my bosom heaving. I love them. Forever Amber, Gone with the Wind, Jean Plaidy, awesome. But having said that, my relationship with La Gregory is a complicated one. She churns out scandal-filled dramas with a historical context (check), she presents famous figures in a gossipy way as if she knew them (check), and in the England of the War of the Roses and the Tudors she’s got stuck right in to two of my favourite periods. But still her books leave me exasperated. Part of it is that she is hamburger to Hilary Mantel’s steak, but more than that there’s something smug and wannabe about them (as there is in her personal appearances on TV), and The Boleyn Inheritance is no different.
Set in the aftermath of Jane Seymour’s death, the book tells the story of Henry VIII’s fourth and fifth marriages. The narrators are Anne of Cleves (wife #4), Katherine Howard (#5) and Jane Boleyn, dead Anne’s sister in law. Gregory does a great job of giving these women very different voices and preoccupations. Anne is so anxious to escape her stifling existence in the house of her cruel brother that she is happy to be married to a king who already has a reputation for casting off wives. Jane, exiled since the fall of her sister-in-law and husband, is desperate to get back to the intrigues of court life. And then there’s Katherine, who wants nothing more than posh frocks and hot boys to flirt with. Which is of course her downfall.
Gregory does a masterful job of creating the sense of dread that pervades Henry’s court. No one can be trusted as they jostle for position and change allegiances overnight, putting themselves and their families forward for favour while trying to cover their arses should things go wrong. And at the head of it all is a vain, capricious and perhaps insane King. The scenes where he attempts to bed his wives, and the descriptions of the stink of his suppurating leg that Katherine gamely overlooks are brilliant.
All three women are sympathetic in different ways. It is refreshingly different to meet an Anne of Cleves who is clever and attractive. Stupid and annoying Katherine is nothing more than a pawn in the games of powerful men, and her realisation at the very last that she is to be executed is tragic. Even Jane, for all her self-deception and deviousness, is so forlorn and alone that you end up feeling for her as she plays her part in sending a second queen to her death.
But having said all of that, I couldn’t get past the smugness. The writing is lazy in places (‘gallows’ is not a word that can be interchanged with ‘scaffold’) and at times I felt like I was reading the output of the novel-writing robot that the novelist keeps in her cellar. There were also a couple of historical inaccuracies, which I find inexcusable in a writer of her supposed learnedness. ‘The most happy’ was Anne Boleyn’s motto, not Jane Seymour’s and when Anne Boleyn was beheaded by the French swordsman she was kneeling up, not down with her head on the axe block! It might sound pedantic, but they bothered me.
So, if you want a disposable beach-read that’s a bit tense in places, then pick up any of Gregory’s novels. If you want something that will change your life, be in your thoughts as you read it and stay with you long after you’ve finished then I have a copy of Wolf Hall you can borrow.
This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it, and watch for info about Cannonball Read SIX on the group blog, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Find more of loulamac’s reviews on the current group blog.
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