TudorB!tch Week: The Other Boleyn Girl

With Wolf Hall premiering on Wednesday, I decided to flood this blog with Tudor-related posts for the next few days. You can either participate, read along, or ignore it. Whatever you choose, I’ll try to keep things interesting.

The Other Boleyn Girl is revisionist history at its finest, a story that slanders Anne Boleyn in a way her contemporary enemies could have only dreamed of; it is a beautifully written and captivating novel, controversial for its incestuous themes and rewriting of events. It paints Anne in a negative light while reinforcing her sister Mary as the king’s true lover, making her far more central to the story than she actually was. The book and film differ on significant points, most notably the charge of incest and that in the film, Lady Boleyn is turned into the moral voice of reason, whereas in the book she is a willing and eager participant in whoring out her daughters to advance their family’s position at court. I guess the screenwriter felt SOMEONE had to be on the girls’ side, and it ought to be their mother.


As with many things in my life, I am captivated by my own weaknesses when it comes to this film. On moral grounds, I loathe its depiction of these historical figures, but as a cinematic piece I find it quite moving and beautiful to watch. I am a hypocrite who condemns the book on historical grounds but owns the film due to its interesting complexities. I watch it and cringe at its harsh depiction of Katharine of Aragon (she is too stern and cold), its malicious Anne (she has the fire and passion but is diabolical and cruel), and the whitewashing of Mary, who was historically reputed to have had sexual affairs with two different monarchs and other men in-between. Here, she is a virginal saint forced by her family to prostitute herself to the king to win favor to their side, then thwarted in her love for Henry by her conniving sister.

I always find historical productions interesting, because it is entertaining to see what they choose to place emphasis on, while discarding those things that have the most bearing on the plot. Here, they get a lot of the historical facets right, such as the manners of the court (not approaching the monarch first, allowing him to walk on the left of the ladies, etc) and the sable hoods, while ignoring the greater character assassinations going on. One can’t fault the costume designer for that, however; and so my eye turns to the writer with a great deal of suspicion. I almost wonder what he has against Anne Boleyn, because this is the second production he has scripted in which she is raped by Henry – something that has absolutely no historical basis and never happened. Yet, in both this and television’s Henry VIII, he does it to exert dominion over Anne, to satisfy his carnal appetites – but mostly, to punish her for her wickedness. It’s inclusion carries certain undertones of implying she deserves what she gets that I don’t like. Each time, it appalls me on multiple levels. Henry was many things, but he was not a rapist.

(This, mercifully, is not in Gregory’s novel … probably because she did not think of it; so she turns his father into a rapist instead in The White Queen novels.)


Yet, at some point during a viewing of this film, the historian in me steps aside and I become merely a viewer; and whenever that happens, the family dynamics seep into my soul and invest me completely in the storyline. Family is at the heart of this story – both the goods and evils of being a Boleyn. Throughout, the sisters are in competition with one another, loving and hating each other in turn, and going to their beloved brother George for affirmation. They are egged on by their vicious uncle, a Howard, who intends to use them for political gain in court, and their father, who has aspirations for greater things. Their mother, and quite possibly my favorite character in this film, cautions them throughout, moralizes at her husband and Howard for their scheming, and then … devastatingly, loses two of her children to the king’s brutal retaliation.

It rips my heart out, it really does. As does the tearful reconciliation between Mary and Anne in the Tower of London in which they share their final parting, and you know that they will never see one another again; Mary is about to lose “half” of herself, because together they form a whole. Together, they are complete; Anne has the virtues that Mary lacks (ambition, cunning, intelligence, and charm) where Mary has those that Anne lacks (compassion, sensitivity, and common sense). In that moment, it ceases to be butchered history and becomes a tale of two sisters, and the forces that pulled them apart and sent one into her grave. True, here it is by her own hand through her scheming, but I cannot hate Anne as she fumbles her way to her death, shaking. I only have tremendous pity for her.


Tragically, it is this Anne that is most often repeated in film; a villain out to satisfy her own desires, who gets her comeuppance in the end. Gregory’s novel reinforces that perspective, and probably influenced the similar depiction in The Tudors to some degree. Natalie Dormer fought the writer on that series, Michael Hurst, for a more likable, more moral, and less scheming Anne in season two, but by then it was too late; the damage was done and her sudden emphasis on her faith and moral behavior made Anne out to be a hypocrite. (It is hard for a true believer to stomach a heroine who informs her ladies, piously, that they should read the Bible faithfully and take its lessons to heart, when last season she was sexually enticing the king into adultery.)

We will never know the real Anne, and cannot even trust documentation as to her personality, for all of it comes with a bias from those who knew and often hated her. Much of our information about her behavior comes from the obviously biased Spanish ambassador, who rejoiced in her downfall! Only one of her letters survives to give us any indication of her true “voice.” She may indeed have been selfish and scheming, or she may have been a woman of honor who baited the king with the promise of her virtue if he would make her queen, hoping that would be an end to it. Whichever the real Anne was, tragically, she never had the chance to defend herself.

10 thoughts on “TudorB!tch Week: The Other Boleyn Girl

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  1. You always entice me to even more historical research. My bookshelf is sagging as it is! But then, we bookavores can’t help ourselves can we? Especially in the face of elusive historical fact. 🙂 I haven’t read the book of this yet, but I actually got it at a thrift store–I really like Gregory’s work (read The White Queen, and LOVED it. Gregory writes with a sense of human realism). You know, I always go the library and come out with half of their books on my back–but I always feel like I’m still missing out on things. No matter how much I read! Research is but a mirage! 🙂

    Here’s my post on The White Queen, if you’re interested. 🙂

    1. I find myself at odds with Gregory as a writer — on one hand, her writing is beautiful and she has a wonderful way with words. She also has an unusual talent to take something unnoticed in history and make it an integral part of the story — like the magical elements in The White Queen. Yet, I cannot help but feel that she uses historical figures amiss and in some instances, deeply wrongs them by intentionally maligning the facts.

  2. Wait, one of the girls develops a relationship with King Henry? Oh my! I think I’d like the relationship part between the sisters, though.

    1. Yes, Philippa Gregory plays fast and loose with history in this. Mary Boleyn becomes the king’s mistress at the insistence of her family then falls in love with him, only to have Anne steal him away with her conniving for the crown.

  3. It’s hard to believe that Anne wasn’t the conniving female everyone made her out to be in the modern films and books. It’s just such a prevalent belief now that it’s penetrated modern society. History books? Who cares about history books? Just like Pocahontas’ true husband, John Rolfe, the real Anne Boleyn has been lost to time, forgotten and overwritten by people who just don’t care what she was really like and want to give her their own spin. A savagery of history, in a way, that will alter the thinking of this generation and trickle on down to the generations to come.

    1. Anne is a difficult soul to pin down. Everything we know about her was written by contemporary writers, who may have all had a bias against her. Katharine was immensely popular and a lot of people felt she had been wronged, so Anne might have been well and truly slandered. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t. It’s hard to tell. All I know for sure is that she dared to tell a king no and told him to get lost, which only made him even more curious about her. And the rest, as they say, is history.

      But … a novelist can due true damage, that’s for sure. Sometimes even more than a historian with a bias. More people read novels!

  4. This fantastic post makes me want to watch this film again. It probably is horribly inaccurate, but I do like it as a period film and for the cast. Plus, it’s fun to see Scarlett as a character other than the “Black Widow.” 😉

    Glad to have you blogging again!

    1. It would have been such a better film had they released an extended edition; the deleted scenes fix most of the plot holes and flesh it out significantly in terms of the sister dynamic between the two girls. Shame…

  5. So “The Other Boleyn Girl,” makes for a great cinematic piece, but not so much as a historical representation? I haven’t seen it, but will have to check it out some time. Though I don’t know much about this period, from my observations this happens a lot when it comes to Hollywood and their interpretations of history. For an example, I love the movie “The Duchess,” and think its a great film, but there is much that the writers/director/producers altered to suit themselves. Likely for dramatic effect. I wish Hollywood would remember that often enough true history is far more intriguing than revisionist interpretations. Well, enough of my blah-blah. Great post, by the way!

    1. Yes, it’s a decent stand alone film in my opinion but its historical facts are skewed (though, less skewed than the original novel!).

      I love The Duchess as well … but you’re right, it’s not historically accurate. There’s another film where the screenwriter decided to use rape to assert a man’s dominion over a woman. Unnecessary, and slanderous against her husband. He had his own flaws — why cement him falsely as a rapist in the minds of audiences? =P

      I don’t know why screenwriters need to invent so much, or think that history needs to be added-on-to; it is quite often fascinating in its own right and certain things that happened are more remarkable than anything a writer could dream up!

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