07 April, 2008

The Boleyn Inheritance, by Philippa Gregory. Book review

Set in the turbulent world of the court of Henry VIII in 1539–1542, The Boleyn Inheritance covers wives number 4 and 5 in Henry’s collection, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard. All the main characters are historical.

In 1539, three contrasting women dream of going to the English court. Jane Boleyn, who gave evidence against her husband George Boleyn and his sister Queen Anne Boleyn that helped send them to the block, is haunted by their ghosts and desperate to get back to the excitement and intrigue of the court to rebuild her fortunes. Anne of Cleves yearns to make a good marriage to get away from her unpleasant mother and brother. Katherine Howard, a giddy teenager for whom the term ‘sex kitten’ could have been coined, wants to go to court so she can wear pretty dresses and dance with handsome boys. King Henry’s matrimonial desires give all three women their wish – but it is not long before political faction-fighting and the capricious whims of a tyrannical king threaten all their lives.

I’ve found some of Philippa Gregory’s novels disappointing. The paranormal hocus-pocus in The Queen’s Fool annoyed me, and at the (welcome) end of The Virgin’s Lover I could only conclude that all these silly, selfish, spiteful people were welcome to each other, and would Philip of Spain please hurry up with that Armada? So I skipped the next offering, and picked this one up with some caution. Well, I can’t speak for its historical accuracy or otherwise, though previous track record would make me cautious on that front, but at least it works as an enjoyable read.

The story is told by three first-person narrators, Jane Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Anne of Cleves. All three have voices so distinct that I never needed to look at the chapter headings to see who was speaking, and their contrasting characters were the great strength of the novel for me. Katherine Howard is exactly as I always imagined her, as pretty and playful and charming as a kitten and with about as much sense. Her narrative, with its comedy and vivacity, reminded me of a sixteenth-century Bridget Jones’s Diary. I half-expected the chapters to begin:

Dresses - 10
New dresses - 4 (vg)
Slobbery kisses from king - 3 (ugh)
Diamond necklaces from king after slobbery kisses - 3 (so not such a bad deal really)
Randy thoughts about Thomas Culpepper - 297
Watching this harmless girl dance heedlessly to her doom with not a thought in her head beyond boys and pretty dresses is pitiful, with the same sense of pointless waste as seeing a butterfly or a fluffy baby bird squashed on the road.

Jane Boleyn is a cynical commentator on the follies around her, believing herself such a woman of the world. Some of her asides have an attractive wry humour to them, such as her comment, “If she declares herself Dereham’s wife then she has not cuckolded the king, only Dereham, and since his head is on London Bridge he is in no position to complain.” Yet in her way she is as self-deluded as Katherine Howard, and naïve enough to put her trust in princes (or in her case, the Duke of Norfolk). Haunted by the deaths of her husband and sister-in-law, she tries to convince herself and those around her that she was blameless, that her part in their fate was unintentional – and indeed, she may well have been used then by those cleverer and more powerful than herself, just as she is being used again.

Anne of Cleves is a level-headed, courageous and quietly intelligent young woman. True, she was lucky that Henry found it easier to get rid of her by annulment rather than murder, but she had the good sense to grasp the opportunity for escape when it was offered and to accept undeserved humiliation as the price of staying alive. She probably came out the most unscathed of Henry’s wives, with her life and a private income, and like a sensible woman she made the best of it and made a reasonable life for herself. As she herself comments in the novel, “…it may be a better thing to be a single woman with a good income in one of the finest palaces in England than to be one of Henry’s frightened queens.”

King Henry is a Bluebeard-like ogre, probably a fairly accurate depiction of him in his later life. At the safe distance of 400+ years it’s possible to feel a little sorry for him, tormented by his paranoid suspicions and the physical pain of a revolting disease. On the spot, at the time, I should imagine he inspired mostly terror.

Prize for Top Villain, however, undoubtedly goes to the reptilian Duke of Norfolk, so remorseless and ruthless a schemer that you feel you ought to hiss every time he comes on stage. This remarkable political survivor, who successfully rode all the storms and tempests of Henry’s court, created a good many of them and always managed to get someone else’s neck on the block instead of his own, could have taught Machiavelli a thing or two.

There are some faintly icky aspects to the novel that might upset some readers. Katherine Howard is portrayed as only fourteen when she first caught the king’s eye. This is at the younger end of the likely range (the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography gives her date of birth as somewhere between 1518 and 1524), which makes Henry even more of a cradle-snatcher and casts Katherine’s first seducer, the music teacher Henry Mannox, in a decidedly unpleasant light, as she would have been only eleven at the time of his attentions. The dysfunctional relationship between Anne of Cleves and her brother Duke William is repeated rather heavily, and I was relieved that this aspect disappeared from the story early on when Anne left for England.

The novel is written in present tense throughout, which I find mildly irritating. It always has the effect of distancing me from the characters and events, and feels rather like watching a longwinded screenplay. Perhaps that’s the idea – maybe it makes it quicker to adapt next time Hollywood fancies another festival of pretty frocks, heaving bosoms, sex and murder (Shouldn’t think many Hollywood heart-throbs would be too thrilled at being offered the part of this Henry, though).

Sex, lies and death at the court of Henry VIII.


James Aach said...


FYI: You've been linked to by http://booksinq.blogspot.com , one of the more popular lit commentary sites in the US. Congrats


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thanks for the review Carla,
I have only read The Other Boleyn Girl of Philippa Gregory's Tudor tales about which I wasn't sure. I enjoyed parts of it, but it didn't always 'feel' as if this was the way it was. I'm not in a rush to read the others at the moment, but I trust your judgement and your way with a review and this is useful to know just in case I do pick this one up - not likely, but you never know! I love your comments re Katherine Howard by the way!

Unknown said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and your feelings for the charactors matched my own. I particularly liked the way Katherine starts each chapter asking "Now what do I have?" So simple but paints such a picture of the giddy girl.
Anne of Cleves came across as solid and likeable. I felt sorry for Jane Boleyn at the end, that she thought she was so clever but was also 'used' by Norfolk. However I feel that in actual fact she may not have been a very likeable charactor.

Rick said...

My only taste of Philippa Gregory was a few pages of The Virgin's Lover - enough to send me to greener pastures. But there's not much you can do with poor Amy Robsart, and much of what you can do involves whipping up a conspiracy theory about her death.

Poor Kathee Howard (somehow the spelling fits) is the ghastly second-time-as-farce after Anne Boleyn. Anne of Cleves is interesting - she's gone down as the Flanders Mare, but she made out like a bandit. No one would look good in that dress in the Holbein portrait, and God only knows what she thought when Henry burst in on her. No wonder she wasn't looking her best for him.

Was Anne of Cleves' relationship with her brother really dysfunctional? Or was Cleves just the dullest place on earth, so that even being married to Henry VIII looked like a step up?

Carla said...

James - many thanks for letting me know - I'm flattered! Wonder how I came to his attention?

Elizabeth - I had the same sort of feeling as you about The Other Boleyn Girl. It was quite a fun read but I didn't get the feeling of being there. I'd rate The Boleyn Inheritance as more enjoyable than The Other Boelyn Girl, chiefly because of dizzy Katherine Howard, who is a terrific character, and way better than Queen's Fool and Virgin's Lover which I really didn't get on with very well at all.

Carol Warham - Hello and welcome. Kitty Howard was my favourite character in the novel, though I imagine in real life her giddiness and flirting would get annoying. Poor kid - I always feel she had no idea what she was getting into when she married Henry, and got a very raw deal indeed. I felt sorry for Jane Boleyn too, though I guess she should have known better than to trust the Duke of Norfolk given his past form. Of the three, I think I'd get on best with Anne of Cleves!

Rick - I read all the way to the end of The Virgin's Lover, in the hope it would improve, but it stayed much the same all the way through - not my kind of thing, I'm afraid. Curiously, in the previous novel (Queen's Fool), Amy made a walk-on appearance near the end and looked to have the potential to be quite interesting, but in Virgin's Lover she had reverted to the sweet small-town maid. It can't have been much fun being married to a man who was the scandal of the country. There is, by the way, a conspiracy theory about her death in The Virgin's Lover, and if you want to know what it was email me and I'll tell you (save you reading the book to find out)!

Anne of Cleves was lucky, but she also had the good sense to use the luck and not push it. I think it's the film The Private Life of Henry VIII - the one with Charles Laughton throwing chicken legs over his shoulder - that makes her out to be a very clever woman who took an instant dislike to Henry and cleverly manouevred herself out of the marriage on advantageous terms, for all the world like a modern celebrity divorcee. I think that's going a bit too far, but I certainly don't think she deserved the Flanders Mare epithet. I wonder if things would have worked out differently if someone had had the brains to warn her about Henry's role-playing fantasies? You can imagine very well what she must have thought! - and that scene is played out very well in the novel from all three points of view. BTW, Philippa Gregory works that phrase into the novel rather neatly. As far as I know very little is known about the court at Cleves, except that Anne's mother was strict and straitlaced and her brother was either mean or short of money or both. It doesn't sound like much fun, but whether the relationship was actually dysfunctional I don't think is known. Philippa Gregory nearly always has a dysfunctional brother-sister relationship in her novels, it seems, so I just thought "oh, here it is" and didn't take it as historical truth. I haven't got the book to hand but I think she says in the Author's Note that she is essentially filling in gaps when it comes to Anne's life in Cleves - which is fair game.

Kathryn Warner said...

I quite enjoyed The Boleyn Inheritance, especially Kitty Howard - loved your idea of her as Bridget Jones! I thought The Other Boleyn Girl was readable, but I had the same reaction as you and Elizabeth, and I gave up on Queen's Fool and Virgin's Lover after a few chapters. Might try Constant Princess, though I've read very mixed reviews of it.

Meghan said...

Thanks for the review, Carla. The court of Henry VIII is always an interesting topic, and there are so many books to chose from that any review is always helpful when choosing trying decide which book to buy!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Makes one wonder why no channel has produced a soap opera about Henry VIII and his wives yet, they could actually stay close to history and still get all the sex and crime. :)

Daphne said...

Great review! I enjoyed this book very much. When I read it, my own daughter was the same age as Kitty Howard and I remember thinking that is exactly how a teenage girl would react - especially one with her background. I also remember being quite creeped out a few times too (with the sexual aspect of her character).

Rick said...

Carla - I thumbed through to the end of The Virgin's Lover to learn the spoiler.

The "Flanders Mare" slur was only invented much later, as I recall. What Anne probably did lack was sophistication and elegance - sophistication in the courtly sense; she may have been plenty shrewd, and seems to have handled the whole imbroglio with some aplomb.

Gabriele - That is a true mystery. Why does Hollywood have to make a shambles of the Tudors and the Julio-Claudians, when the facts have been tabloid stuff for 500/2000 years?

Bernita said...

Her take articulates my impression of the three women as well.

Constance Brewer said...

Henry's never been one of my favorites, probably for all the reasons you name. :) If I read it (*whines* not my era), I'd read it for the women...

Rick said...

The third POV in the book, Jane Boleyn - is she AKA Lady Rochefort? If so, she wasn't so smart as she thought, was she?

As I recall, historically she went into hysterics on the scaffold. The amazing thing being that so many didn't.

Unknown said...

Jane Boleyn was Lady Rochefort. I guess she wasn't a pleasant character, her greed was tempered by her fighting for survival, unfortunately trusting Norfolk. However, who knows what many of us would have done living in those precarious times. Mary Boleyn seems to have had the right idea to get away and yet let her daughter Catherine go!

Carla said...

Alianore - I thought Kitty Howard was great!

Meghan - hope you found the review helpful! There does seem to be rather a lot of Tudor fiction around just now (!) - did you read Susan' Higginbotham's take on it?

Gabriele - um, isn't that what the TV show The Tudors is?

Daphne - thanks! Yes, Katherine's sexual precocity was a bit much at times, wasn't it? I kept forgetting she was supposed to be only 14 and thinking of her as 18 or so, which seems to be a more usual age for her in novels.

Rick - Sensible man! I half wish I'd done the same... Anne of Cleves perhaps also lacked the related art of flattery, which would be difficult in a strange culture in any case. Certainly at their first meeting she was far too honest for her own good!

Bernita - thank you. I thought she had the characters abou right.

Constance - if you liked Bridget Jones (film or book), you could read it for Kitty Howard :-) Henry doesn't actually appear all that much, he dominates the book from a distance, if that makes any sense.

Rick - Yes, Jane Lady Rochford. She got to keep her husband's title after he was executed - possibly as a reward for her compliance in giving evidence? Indeed, she wasn't as clever as she thought, though to be fair Machiavelli himself would have been hard put to out-scheme the Duke of Norfolk. This is one case where knowing her fate actually makes the book work better, because you know what happens to her and you can see the gap between her imaginings and the reality.
In the novel her hysterics are part of an attempt to feign insanity to avoid execution (the Duke has previously told her that a lunatic can't be executed), then a reaction to realising that she isn't going to be let off after all, and finally a horrified realisation that she is going to die literally with Kitty Howards' blood on her hands. Chilling and effective.
I suppose most people had either accepted their fate or blocked it out somehow, or trusted that they were going to God.

Carol - That's one of the things that interests me about Jane Boleyn/Lady Rochford. She's gone down to history as a pretty unpleasant person (Philippa Gregory's author's note describes her as "a horror"), but who's to know exactly what choices she was faced with at the time, or to say that any of us would have done any better? Henry's court must have been a truly terrifying place, when people could be arrested at a moment's notice and executed on feeble evidence, if any at all. It might have been a little like living under occupation - where's the line between powerless victim being pushed around by the regime and collaborator? Mary Boleyn certainly came out of it better than most of her family :-)

Gabriele Campbell said...

Can't get the Tudors here. :(

Carla said...

Form what I've seen of it, you're not missing much, unless you're an aficionado for glitzy soap opera in period costume.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Well, as long as it has hot guys .... :)

Rick said...

My definition of a royal court: High school with halberds.

Does the TV miniseries even have credible period costume? When I saw a huge ad in the paper for it, for a moment I thought it was something Roman.

Now, a fashionable woman in any era can wear nothing but a sheet, if that is the effect you want (and I am no one to complain, since my protagonist wears a blanket for an important encounter), but the guy's costume hardly looked Tudor either.

So at least in the ad they weren't trying for even superficial verisimilitude - it just was set in a generic HollyPast, where Cleopatra could be delivered to Henry VIII wrapped in a rug.

Carla said...

Gabriele - oh yes, it has those, and lots of heaving bosoms to match. Have you seen the publicity stills with Henry wearing half a shirt and sitting moodily in a chair with three low-cut and amply-filled frocks looming behind him? (Example here). That shows you what to expect :-)

Rick - Great definition! On a small random sample no, it doesn't, but they are frightfully pretty. Nor accurate architecture - my partner tells me there was a shot of a flashy carriage pulling up in front of a colonnaded classical-style entrance, a style that wasn't in vogue for another three hundred years or so. I suppose bedroom romps have the same (lack of) costume in any era, and only a history geek would be looking at the architecture anyway :-)

"it just was set in a generic HollyPast, where Cleopatra could be delivered to Henry VIII wrapped in a rug"
You have it in a nutshell.

Rick said...

An aside on how well-done Hollywood costume can feel accurate even when it isn't. We saw "Ever After" in the theater when it came out, and my memory was of it having had very authentic looking early 16th c. French court costume.

Seeing it again more recently on TV, that isn't strictly true - the specifics were not accurate, but the flavor of Ren court costume was so nicely done that my initial memory fooled me. And this is a fairy tale, loosely set in a Ren French milieu - nothing claiming to be a historical piece as such. (No surprise, historical costumers love the film in spite of knowing its freehanded details.)

Carla said...

Rick - Yes, that elusive quality of looking 'right', even if it isn't necessarily accurate. I couldn't begin to define it. Given that the film is a fairy tale, it can do what it likes with the costume, so that perhaps suited the freehand approach particularly well.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Was the real Henry VIII ever so handsome?

I would explain a few things, though. ;)

Rick said...

Carla - "Rightness" is indeed hard to define. Achieving it, as with what we've discussed before about fantasy worlds, must have to do with knowing the material, so you know what you are freehanding, and come out with a seamless result.

Gabriele - As a young man Henry VIII was reputedly very handsome indeed. You wouldn't know from early portraits of him, but portraits of that era are rarely flattering to our eye - women reputed as famous beauties wouldn't pull a hermit off a wall, to go by some of their portraits.

Carla said...

Gabriele - The real Henry was blond not dark, and probably not quite so moodily glamorous, but yes, he was one hot hunk in his youth according to contemporary records. The Venetian ambassador described him as "extremely handsome; nature could not have done more for him" and positively swooned over the sight of him playing tennis "the prettiest thing in the world..... his fair skin glowing through a shirt of the finest texture." (Quoted in Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, ISBN 0-7493-1409-5, so you'll have to take her word for the translation.)

As Rick says, standards of beauty vary over time, so Henry might or might not be considered a heart-throb now. Though I wonder if this is partly because portraits, especially formal portraits, have difficutly conveying mobility of expression, and that can be a large part of what makes someone attractive.

Rick - I think I'd modify your point slightly and say that it has to be coherent on its own terms to feel 'right'. If you know a real period well enough to be sure of what you've changed and why, it's likely that the world you've created will be coherent. But I think it's also possible, though difficult, to create a coherent world de novo.