Saturday, February 6, 2010

This Won't Hurt A Bit

Just finished with Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl. About a year ago I listened with unexpected pleasure to Margaret George's Helen of Troy, and it whetted my appetite for other historical novels. A few months back now I watched the 2008 film The Other Boleyn Girl (based on Gregory's book) and decided to put the b00k on my iPod for future long drives. But the story was so engaging that I ended up listening to it on my daily walks as well, and last night was so taken with the story that I sat on the sofa and listened for six hours (it helped that I was stuck alone in Louisville with little else to do; but this won out over several new movies to watch).

The historical events on which this book is based, and to which it mostly conforms (though there are some disputes and, apparently, some license taken) are known at least in broad strokes to most everybody. Anne Boleyn's ascent to the throne as the second of what turned out to be six wives of Henry VIII is bold enough even in outline. But to have the whole story laid out in its myriad details is rich and captivating. I'm always taken by huge, earth-shaking events as seen through the eyes of the individuals who lived them; here we have the ugly business of national politics (with large dollops of international strategizing in the bargain) mixed with things familiar to all of us--love and desire and courtship and childrearing--but also mixed with a rigid class system and ruthless family politics, these latter elements quite foreign to modern sensibilities. And underneath it all is naked ambition, the lust for power and wealth and control.

The story is told from the point of view of Mary Boleyn, the older sister of eventual Queen of England Anne Boleyn. The Boleyn family was a powerful and influential house at the time in England, and both daughters were raised in the manner of people who exerted influence on the doings at court. Mary and Anne were extensively educated and, after further finishing and training in the French court, were brought into service as ladies-in-waiting for the English Queen, Catherine of Aragon. Mary was primed for, and actively maneuvered by her family into, the role of the King's mistress, the motivation being the inevitable advancement for the family that the King's favor would bestow. But Mary was already married at the time, and was thus unable to do more than provide pleasure and sexual release for the King (and perhaps produce a couple illegitimate children). It's a significant part of the story that Mary's feelings about the whole endeavor were never considered, and to express them would have been seen by the men who controlled the household as extreme impertinence. It soon became clear that events were at a rare alignment for the Boleyn family: with the family in privileged standing, and Catherine of Aragon having failed to produce a male heir for the King before going through menopause, the still-unmarried Anne might be maneuvered not simply to take Mary's place, but to take Catherine's place: the Queen's throne itself. And so it was to be.

But not without a couple mountains to move first. Queen Catherine was married for 20 years to Henry, and was a devoted wife to him and quite politically-savvy in her own right. Further, she was the basis for a political alliance between England and Spain, a relationship the importance of which ebbed and flowed. And she was beloved by the people of England. A formidable woman quite apart from her husband, she was not going to sit idly while the lecherous and desperate King plotted to have her set aside. Even if she would have consented, England was an officially-Catholic country, the Church of England being an arm of the Holy Roman Church; and that meant that setting aside the Queen required an annulment from the Pope himself. This seems pretty heady stuff in itself. But as the King became more and more desperate for an heir, and with Anne Boleyn (as we are to believe) pestering him for a divorce and refusing herself to him until marriage, the King was moved to more and more extreme maneuvering, resulting eventually in a break with Rome and the establishment of the official Church of England, with Henry himself as the divine overseer--thus enabling him to grant himself the annulment he needed (yet another of a zillion examples of the murderous folly of mixing religion with politics).

But trumping up a flimsy pretext for setting the royal marriage aside is itself a perilous precedent. Having worked her way (by whatever combination of carnivorous personal ambition and vertiginous family meddling) to the throne of Queen of England, Anne Boleyn rather quickly found the position an extremely pressure-filled and hazardous one, a state of affairs which she herself had done much to effect. She was not to last three years as Queen, and was not to leave the position with her head still attached to her body. Whatever else one might say about it, a love story where people's very lives are on the line becomes something more.

I find my enthusiasm at least a little dampened by not knowing where reality ends and fiction begins. Ms. Gregory does a spectacular job of character development, and we come to have a visceral sense of who all these key players are; and insofar as the basic plot elements of barren queen and ambitious family and church turmoil and ascent to throne and beheading are parts of the factual record, perhaps the details do not need to matter (and in any case what is not known now will never be). But the emotional lives of the characters in the novel are vivid and we feel absolutely brought into events. The real story is kept at arm's length if the people here are pure fantasy--but I suppose it's as close as we will ever get, and indeed we're drawn much more into the story for the immersion in people's lives.

Regardless, it's not much of a criticism because what we are given is so vivid and engaging. The time period--the 1530s--is fascinating to me, and Ms. Gregory does not linger unduly on how things in our modern world have evolved. This is just the setting in which the story takes place, the "modern day" of the time. Still, the details seep out: how livings are made, how people get from place to place, what life is like with a houseful of servants, the sense of distance without mass transit; and especially the series of social strata, the classes to which one was born and which imposed so many rules and expectations on one. The Boleyn's uncle, Thomas Howard (the brother of Elizabeth Boleyn Howard, the Boleyn sisters' mother) was considered the leader of the extended Howard family--the Howards being even more influential than the Boleyns--and it's shocking to our modern sensibilities how he was able to order everyone around quite irrespective of their will, to include actions which would put them in mortal danger. Even the girls' father, Thomas Boleyn, could not (or at least did not) overrule the uncle. It's all foreign to us, but not so foreign that we cannot relate. And the relating--the translating of our modern lives into these experiences of 16th Century folks--is where so much of the story's pull lies.

The end result of all this for me is a desire to learn more about the period and the characters involved. Obviously, the story did not begin or end with Anne or Mary Boleyn, nor with the King himself. And each step along the way provides another color to the rich tapestry of history on which we can look back with wonder. Many of these people have Wikipedia pages dedicated to them, and quite a number of historical books and movies exist (in addition to the 2008 film starring Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman, Philippa Gregory's book was made into a 2003 BBC miniseries). It's like celebrity mania which has stood the test of time, a full-bodied justification for the ugly business of royalty-watching.

Lastly, I think there is something simply compelling, for me anyway, about being read to, about having a story told to one. Reading is faster, but a good reader is really a treat. This book is read by British actor Susan Lyons, and she is excellent.

No comments: