Study Guide

The Other Boleyn Girl Analysis

By Philippa Gregory

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Which Boleyn Girl Is Which?

    If for some reason you didn't read the cover of the book, Mary will remind you of the title again and again. Here is but a fraction of the shout-outs to the title within the book.

    • "I am a Boleyn, that's not a small thing to be, and my mother was born a Howard, that's to be one of the greatest families in the country. I'm a Howard girl, a Boleyn girl." (2.7)
    • "I will try to remember that you were innocent of any plotting; that today at least, you were more a girl than a Boleyn." (2.221)
    • I was nothing more than a Boleyn girl, and not the favorite any more. (5.3)
    • When Anne will be queen, Mary wonders what she'll be. "You'll be the other Boleyn girl." (17.116)
    • King Francis: "There was only one girl who could ever match you and that was the other Boleyn girl." (35.221)
    • Then my sister, the Boleyn girl, went out to be crowned Queen of England. (37.249)
    • "If this is another Boleyn girl she has a right to live as much as Anne or me." (41.80)
    • "The best of the Boleyn girls." (47.15)

    Most often, the Boleyn girls in question are Mary and Anne. But which one is the other Boleyn girl? Your first instinct might be to say Mary. As one of the above lines says, Anne Boleyn is Queen of England. Mary is…the other one.

    But the interesting thing about historical fiction is that it shows us the dynamic of power shifting to and fro like a bad toupee in the breeze.

    At the beginning of the book, Mary is the king's mistress, which makes Anne the "other" Boleyn girl. When Anne gains power, Mary is the "other" Boleyn girl. They bounce back and forth like a tennis ball until Anne earns the crown, forever cementing Mary as the "other Boleyn girl." The point is that politics decides which girl is which, and the identity of "the other Boleyn girl" is entirely political.

    But there are other other Boleyn girls, too. Mary's daughter Catherine is technically a Boleyn girl, and when she joins the court, Mary warns her to alert her if any men flirt with her. Mary doesn't want Catherine following in her footsteps.

    Perhaps the most important other other Boleyn girl is Anne's daughter, Elizabeth. She doesn't have the Boleyn name, but she's a Boleyn at heart. And as everyone knows, she will eventually grow up to be Cate Blanchett, Glenda Jackson, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and a whole bunch of others, all playing the greatest other Boleyn girl of them all.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The End of an Era

    Almost every TV show finale features a birth or a wedding. The Other Boleyn Girl takes a cue from the boob tube and gives us both. Plus, it throws in an execution for some extra excitement.

    If you know your history, you know that none of this is going to end well for Anne Boleyn. The birth in question is the birth of a baby that is so hideously deformed, many accuse Anne of being a witch. The wedding is the wedding of Henry to Jane Seymour, which occurs shortly after Anne is beheaded in the book's final chapter.

    The end of the novel mirrors the beginning, which also features an execution. Through this parallelism, we see Mary's growth as a character. At the beginning, Mary naively believes the king will spare her uncle, who is beheaded. At the end, she believes Henry will pardon Anne, but it comes across more like a desperate hope than naivety. Hope is all Mary has left when the Boleyns are up against the wall.

    In spite of all this tragedy, Mary, our protagonist, has the happiest ending she could hope for after all the trouble her family has caused and is punished for. She loses a sister and a brother, who is also executed, but she gets to keep her own head, her two children, and her new husband. She leaves court, and we're left to assume that she leads a happy life away from the volatile whims of Henry VIII.

    It's Alive! It's Alive!

    Mary Shelley wouldn't write Frankenstein until 1816, but Henry VIII is a not-so-modern Prometheus. What we mean by this is that all the terrible things that happen to the Boleyn family are the result of Henry, the monster they themselves created.

    The monster imagery comes out in full force when Anne has her deformed child. "This is not a child from a man, this is a child from a devil" (47.400). It's suggested that the baby is deformed because it was formed by an incestual act with Anne's brother, George. Anne was pushed to such a desperate act by Henry's single-minded determination for a male heir.

    But a bigger issue is that the entire structure of this court society—full of intrigue, affairs, political maneuvering, and betrayal—produces monsters. Usually metaphorically, but apparently also literally at times.

    Also, it's never a good idea to start a relationship with someone who is having an affair. That person is cheating on his or her spouse or main squeeze to be with you, so what makes you think that person won't turn around and cheat on you later? Henry literally invents divorce to kick Katherine of Aragon to the curb, so it's no surprise he abuses his power to get rid of Anne, too. Mary's husband, William, realizes this: "We gave him that power when we denied the Pope the right to rule the church. We gave Henry the right to rule everything" (49.117).

    Henry VIII is a man in a mid-life crisis. Most men buy a sports car, but Henry beheads his wife and upgrades to a newer model. Henry has tons of power, and no maturity, which is another reason Mary flees. "Everyone felt that the world had grown a little more dangerous" (45.39). Like a science experiment gone wrong, the only solution is to run away and hope it just blows off.

    The Golden Age

    This being historical fiction, the story doesn't end with the last page. You can pick up where Gregory leaves off by reading up on your history. One thing Gregory heavily foreshadows is the coming success and legacy of Anne's daughter: 

    Her skin is perfect, she has not a blemish on her body, not a mark anywhere! No one can tell me this is not a child blessed by God. No one can tell me that she is not going to be the greatest princess this country has ever had! (48.107)

    First of all, we have to point out that Anne only claims Elizabeth when she thinks it will benefit Anne herself. Anne's selfishness aside, she is actually selling Elizabeth short in her bragging. Elizabeth doesn't become the greatest princess; she becomes but one of the greatest queens of England. Yes, we're talking about Elizabeth I here.

    That's a legacy you can't beat.

  • Setting

    The Court of Henry VIII, London and Surroundings 1521-1536

    Royal Flush

    The Tudor Court is different from the Tooter Court, infamous for the king's decree that everyone eat more beans. The Tudor Court is so named because England was ruled by the House of Tudor, which gave England six monarchs from 1485 to 1603: Henry VII; his son, Henry VIII; Edward VI, one of Henry's many children; Lady Jane Grey, the William Henry Harrison of England; Mary I, Henry VIII's first daughter; and, mostly famously, Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. In fact, Elizabeth was so great, historians have given her reign its own name: the Elizabethan period.

    Got all that? Great. There will be a quiz later.

    Okay, although you will likely be quizzed about all this at some point in your British history class, we're focusing on just one-sixth of the Tudor pie: the one-sixth named Henry VIII. This dude reigned from 1509 to 1547, and while it wasn't exactly a reign of terror, Henry did set many precedents that gave royals extreme power over people for a while.

    The issue that concerns us most in The Other Boleyn Girl is the Protestant Reformation. Henry VIII took away power from the pope and assigned it to himself. He believed he was the supreme ruler, and to go against him would be like going against God himself.

    Let's be real: unlike the Lutheran part of the Reformation, for example, this wasn't about religion. It was about power.

    It sounds redundant to say "royalty rules." Kings are called rulers because they rule, not because they measure things. But Henry was a volatile and dangerous monarch: to simply disagree with him or criticize him was tantamount to treason, and the punishment was execution.

    Henry was hypersensitive about everything, especially his virility and masculinity, and he would put to death anyone who made fun of him. Before you could say, "Lighten up, Henry," he'd have you decapitated so that you wouldn't say anything at all.

    In this world, anyone around Henry must remain on his or her best behavior at all times. One comment taken the wrong way could lead to death.

    Country Mary and City Mary

    Living in Windsor Castle, or any of Henry's sprawling estates, is like being a Real Housewife of the Tudor period. But as we do when we watch marathons of reality TV, we eventually get sick of it. As Mary gets tired of the shenanigans at court, the castle begins to represent everything she hates.

    At the beginning of the book, Mary craves the hustle and bustle of the court. But after she insults Henry, her family basically grounds her as punishment. Instead of saying Go to your room, they send her to the family home in Hever. Mary isn't royalty, but she isn't exactly poor, either. Any family that can say to their daughter Go to our other home isn't strapped for cash.

    At first, Mary hates the quiet of Hever and can't wait to return to court. She acts like the Hever home is a rickety old farmhouse, even though it's a frickin' castle. Seriously, look at this place. We'd want to live in the country if our looked like that. That country house is almost as big as a country. A small country like Monaco or Tuvalu, but still a country.

    To be fair, Hever may be big, but it is isolated. "It was empty countryside that I rode through alone. Empty and flat and desolate" (37.27). And in an age without telephones, it's extra lonely being in those echoey hallways far from anyone else.

    Once Mary has kids, Hever isn't so lonely anymore. Her kids are there, and they're the only people she wants to be around. The hullabaloo in court isn't appealing anymore. "There are other places to live than in palaces and castles. There are other tunes to dance to other than the court's music. We don't always have to wait on a king and queen" (42.84).

    This is the 16th-century equivalent of cutting the cord, getting rid of cable, and completely living off the grid. (Ignore the fact that they didn't even have a grid back then). It isn't for everyone, but Mary realizes it's for her. She makes the daring decision to do it, and it brings her happiness.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    The Other Boleyn Girl spans fifteen years, but it won't take you that long to read it. Reading this book is more like watching a soap opera than burying your nose in a history textbook—and that's not because it's steamier than an episode of How to Get Away with Murder, which would be Anne Boleyn's favorite show if she were alive today.

    Philippa Gregory puts all the historical details in the novel, so if you don't know your Cardinal Wolseys from your Sir Thomas Mores, no problem. The book will clue you in whenever they appear on page. If you're ignorant of this time in history, don't let that scare you away. The real stars of the story are the emotions and motivations behind the Boleyns' actions, and Gregory illustrates them in vivid, easy-to-understand detail.

  • Games

    Cards Against Humanity

    Anyone who says Don't hate the player, hate the game doesn't seem to understand that no one is forcing these people to play said game, and there wouldn't be a game if people weren't playing it. Feel free to hate anyone you want in this book, because most of them treat others as pawns in a game instead of as people with lives and feelings.

    We could fill a whole book with lines that make allusions to games, and that book would be called The Other Boleyn Girl. Here is a sample of a fraction of the times games are mentioned:

    • "But don't run too fast," my sister warned. "Remember he has to catch you." (2.268)
    • "They've ordered you to play a clever game, not moon around like a lovesick girl at twilight." (2.310)
    • We all had parts to play, we all had costumes to wear. (4.1)
    • I saw how she played him. (5.197)
    • I was no longer their pawn. I was at the very least a castle, a player in the game. (10.18)
    • "You're a wild card and I don't know how to play you." (15.25)
    • "I promise you, it's no game to me, Your Majesty." (2.386)
    • "Mistress Anne plays a strong hand. She wants my husband and your son as well. She wants a full suit." (24.21)
    • "It's a damned dangerous game to play with a king who has absolute power." (32.159)
    • Few of the Howards ever realized that girls were anything more than counters to play in the marriage game. (49.30)

    The reason the Boleyns act this way is that the world is a game to them—a political game, specifically. These people take risks that they hope will pay off, and they want to win more than anything else. What do they win? Power, prestige, and fortune, that's what. For the Boleyns, anything's a fair price, even if that means others will get hurt in their desperate attempts to win.

    Someone get these people a copy of Balderdash, because if they had a real game to play, maybe the world would be a nicer place.

  • Anne's Necklace

    B is for…

    If you thought Taylor Swift popularized the monogram necklace, you're wrong. She's about, oh, five hundred years too late to be considered a trendsetter. It's Anne Boleyn who rocks a gold "B" necklace like it's going out of style.

    "She pushed her French hood far back on her head so that her dark hair showed, and straightened the gold "B" that she always wore round her neck" (17.73). Yeah, once the necklace is mentioned, Mary can't stop talking about it. Is this paid product placement? Does Mary collect a check from Stella & Dot every time she talks about it?

    Anne wears the necklace almost every day, and it's not because she's hard up for cash. As the king's mistress, she could ask for any jewels she wants (and she does: see below). No, Anne wears the necklace for a different reason. "'I am a Boleyn girl, a Howard girl,' she whispered, her hand on the golden 'B' at her throat" (48.10).

    As the sister of the king's mistress, then the king's mistress herself, and then the Queen of England, Anne Boleyn shifts identities the way some people change clothes. The necklace reminds her who she really is. Once a Boleyn, always a Boleyn. But because we only see Anne's various personas, only she knows exactly what that means.

  • The Crown Jewels

    Crowning Glory

    Anne Boleyn wants to be the very best, like no one ever was. But if a woman becomes queen and no one is around to see it, is she even queen at all? Not in her mind.

    Basically, Anne doesn't do anything if she can't brag about it. In the lead-up to her being crowned as the queen, she organizes ostentatious parades and a coronation party to end all coronation parties. She'd have hired the Magic Mike dancers if they were around back then.

    Eventually, she makes a big a demand from Henry: "They are England's jewels, given to the queen. If I am to be queen then I must have them. If she is queen then she can keep them. Choose!" (35.116).

    Yes, Anne wants to be confirmed as queen, but more than that, she wants to take these jewels from Katherine. Anne may be queen, but she's not above going, "I'm queen and you're not, nyah nyah nyah."

    It's not hard to understand why, though: the only thing making Anne the legit queen is that Henry has legally divorced his wife and married her. But, um, technically, in order to do that, Henry had to break with the freakin' Catholic Church and make his own church. Not everybody—surprise, surprise—was okay with that. So in a lot of people's minds, Anne was not legit—no way, no how.

    But hey, if she can get those crown jewels, it sure can't hurt.

  • Mary's Scarf

    Not an Infinity Scarf

    Mary's scarf is a scarf for all seasons. It's light. It's goes with everything. And it's symbolic of how some men treat women: like disposable playthings. That never goes out of style. (But it should.)

    Early on in her affair with the king, naïve Mary thinks their love will last forever. But if she paid attention to how Henry treats her scarf, she'd realize how wrong she is.

    What actually happens? Well, Mary gives it to King H right before a joust. "I'll wear it against my heart," (2.394) he says. It's so romantic we could just gag.

    At this point, Henry treats the scarf—and Mary—like it's the most important thing ever to him. But it's only important in the moment. By the end of the joust, Henry has dropped it, and he doesn't even know it's gone. Similarly, do you think Henry misses Mary one iota when he last moves on to Anne? Nope, didn't think so.

    Later, the Queen Katherine finds the scarf and returns it to Mary. "It looked like a sorry bit of cloth, something you might wash a floor with" (2.461). Mary is a commoner, and the queen reminds her of this. Mary needs to watch her step, or instead of helping the queen, she might be scrubbing the floors herself.

    Or the queen might order someone to scrub the floors with Mary's face.

    When Mary brings up her hurt feelings to Henry, she learns he has the same regard for her feelings that he does for her scarf. He blows her off, saying, "You are not my mistress, madam, nor my wife" (2.495). This is pretty ironic, because Henry doesn't treat his wife or mistresses any better than other women. But don't tell that to Henry if you want to keep your head.

    • Allusions

      Historical References

      Pretty much everyone in this book is a real-life figure. Here are the most prominent ones:

      • Anne Boleyn
      • Henry VIII
      • Katherine of Aragon
      • Jane Seymour
      • Mary I
      • Elizabeth I (appears as a baby. Aww, what a cute little queen.)

      These people are real, but historians known very little about them, giving Philippa Gregory lots of freedom to invent their stories:

      • Mary Boleyn
      • George Boleyn
      • Madge Shelton
      • Lady Jane Rochford
      • William Carey
      • William Stafford

      Aside from the historical figures who are main and supporting characters in this novel, the following historical figures make cameos throughout:

      • Martin Luther
      • Thomas More
      • Oliver Cromwell
      • Cardinal Wolsey