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Bookclub: Philippa Gregory and The Other Boleyn Girl

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Jim Naughtie 16:21, Friday, 1 June 2012



We really can’t get enough of the Tudors, it seems. 

It’s hard not to believe that at some stage readers will feel that they would like a break… but there is no sign of it. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies whizzed up the best-seller list the moment it left the warehouses three weeks ago, and C.J.Sansom’s thrillers set on the fringes of the Tudor court, in the teeming streets of London, have been extraordinarily successful; perhaps because they are gripping pieces of storytelling. 

In this month’s Bookclub (Sunday 3 June at 4pm and online too) we’re talking to Philippa Gregory about her book The Other Boleyn Girl which is another piece of the jigsaw – the popular opening book in her Tudor sequence, featuring Mary, sister of Anne Boleyn.  

The back story is familiar – Henry VIII, Philippa told our readers, became an insane tyrant after he had Anne executed – but when she started to write the book, little was known of Mary. She’d noticed that the King launched a ship called Mary Boleyn, found it intriguing, and started to burrow away.  

She realised that Mary had been Henry’s mistress before Anne, and had probably borne him two children, one being a boy. And since the publication of her book there have been three biographies. The industry thunders on.

This meant, of course, that historians were trading different theories about the little-known sister. Was she older or younger than Anne? Philippa, unapologetically, makes her younger and thinks that the psychology of the birth order helps with the plot. 

But if there were incontrovertible evidence that she was older she’d change the author’s note (people do leap from fiction to history, she says) but she wouldn’t change her story. She’s a teller of tales rather than a historian, after all. I asked her why she thought she knew Mary: “Sleight of hand. I made her up…” Exactly. 

And she finds it easier to work out what Mary might have been thinking 500 years ago than she would in trying to get inside the head of the presenter of Bookclub. I must say I was relieved, and I understood. 

Philippa is serious about her history, but also about the liberating power of fiction. 

That is one of the reasons she wrote the book in the first person, to avoid what she calls the great curse of the historian – hindsight.

“Nowhere in this book, I hope, does anybody think that Anne Boleyn is going to end up dead, not even when the scaffold is built for her. You’re always hoping she will get away with it.”

This is certainly setting great store by the willing suspension of disbelief. Her claim is that she can lure readers into the book through history, and then intoxicate them with the story of a woman who is so fascinating that she begins to fly on her own, a character released from the nuts and bolts of the historical record. 

This may be the reason why the Tudor story is so gripping, beyond the moments of drama themselves (beheading, divorces, and the birth and death of children). As Philippa put it, the atmosphere of the time was engrossing: who wouldn’t want to be the King’s mistress, and there was lots of sex going on between people who were married to other people. Fact. 

“It was a highly sexualised time. Everybody was very young and they were eating 80% meat in the diet, so they were pumped up young people.” I must say that I hadn’t thought before of the place of meat in the emotional  life of Henry’s court… but you learn something new every day.

And she was able to weave a story involving the three siblings – Anne, Mary and George Boleyn – which is, in part, the account of the fall of a great family – its lands, its heirs, its place in the realm. 

Simultaneously with that decline was the transformation of Henry from the “adorable” man who had married Katharine of Aragon to the tyrant who murdered Anne and drove himself mad as a consequence. It is that corrupting story of power and ego that drives the story, and perhaps that continues to draw us so powerfully  to the story of those years, six wives and all. 

The simple truth is that there is no period into which is packed such a rich collection of characters whose private dramas seem utterly fused with the life of country. Or so we believe. It may be an illusion, but it is one to which we still happily surrender.

The Tudors remain irresistible. And for a historical novelist, intrigued by the operation of intellect, lust and ambition at a distance of 500 years, they remain the happiest of hunting grounds. I do hope you enjoy Philippa’s conversation – in which, incidentally, she comes out as “a Republican at heart.”

Our next recordings are with Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) on Tues, June 19th, and Victoria Hislop (The Island ) on July 10th. Remember that on the Bookclub website, you can find out how to join us for one of our sessions with an author.

Happy reading


Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub



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