Study Guide

Mary Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl

By Philippa Gregory

Mary Boleyn

Born c.1500, Died c.1543
Known for: Not being known. Despite being sister to the queen of England, Anne Boleyn, very little is known about Mary Boleyn in the historical record. Rumored to be baby mama to one or two of Henry VIII's children. (Source)

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Mary Boleyn is a combination of Amazon Prime and Ashley Madison, the website for people who want to have extramarital affairs. Her family—yes, her family—loads her up with seduction techniques and ships her off to King Henry VIII, overnight delivery, free shipping.

At the beginning of the book, Mary is only thirteen years old. She's a blank slate, programmed by her family to be a pawn in their play for power with the royal family. They want Mary to seduce the king and become his mistress—because that benefits them politically, socially, and financially. Even though she likes the queen, Mary agrees:

Surely to God you can all see that the one thing, the one thing is that I always, always, do as I am told. (6.112)

Mary is nothing if she isn't obedient. She's so obedient, in fact, that she convinces herself that she actually loves the king and that he cares about her. Is it possible to fall in love on demand? Maybe it is when you're thirteen and you're in love with royalty.

It only takes a couple of years, which isn't long in book time, for Mary to realize that she is being objectified by both her family and the king. She even envisions herself as a piece of furniture: 

I felt like a parcel, like the curtains for a bed, or the plates for the top table, or the pewter for the lower tables in the hall. (2.530)

The sad thing is, Mary isn't even nice furniture: she's less like a dining set from Room & Board than she is a secondhand Wal-Mart Mainstays futon left on the roadside.

A more apt comparison would be that Mary feels like a stepstool. When Anne takes over the role of Henry's favorite mistress, Mary realizes she was just a step on the Boleyn family's path to power. That prompts her to declare, "I don't want to be a step!" (14.200), like when the chickens in Chicken Run say, "I don't want to be a pie." She wants to find a ladder to climb all by herself.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Mary has two of the king's children—Catherine and Henry. As a mother, the only thing Mary wants is to be able to raise her children in peace. When she is first sent to the family farm in Hever, she hates it. She's bored away from the hustle and bustle of court. But becoming a mom makes Mary tired of the nonstop gossiping and partying of the royals. She wants to get the heck out of London and be with her kids.

That isn't an option for a Boleyn girl. As her uncle so kindly informs her, "You're not free to choose" (13.28). When the men of her family tell her to jump (into the king's bed), Mary is only allowed to ask "How high?" and "What should I wear?" The longer Mary is kept from her children, the more she shifts from obedient daughter to Mary Mary Quite Contrary.

As Mary herself tells us, "Before anything else I was a woman who was capable of passion and who had a great need and a great desire for love" (37.13). When she was a young girl, Mary desired the love of the king. But the love of her children is a lot stronger, and she ultimately makes a decision on her own: the decision to leave court and be with them.

Family Matters

Mary marries William Stafford because he is completely different from all the other men in her life. With him, Mary realizes that she can be married, have a romantic relationship and a supportive stepfather for her kids, and still retain her independence. This guy doesn't order her around. He doesn't expect her to do things she doesn't want to do. And he loves her.

She loves him back, and their love is worth more than all the wealth Mary gives up when she flees her family: "I had found a man I loved; and married for love. I would never suggest that this was a mistake" (42.130).

Mary's sister Anne, who never saw anything Mary had that she didn't want, is jealous of Mary's happiness. Anne's response is to taunt Mary. "You are Lady Nobody," says Anne. But Mary responds, "That was my choice" (45.118-45.119). Love and choice are the two things Mary lives most of her life without.

When she finally has them, she decides she'll never give them up.

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