Thanks to Tigerlily's indirect recommendation, I've just finished reading what is without a doubt the most entertaining and spellbinding book I've read in a while. I stayed up till 3 a.m. last night reading it, and didn't get up from bed in the morning before I had finally finished reading it. (My logic being that once I finished reading it, it wouldn't disturb my work anymore and therefore it'd be better to read the rest of it pretty quickly.)
Philippa Gregory's novel The Other Boleyn Girl was a thoroughly enjoyable read. It tells the story of Mary Boleyn, the sister of Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn. Mary is the first Boleyn girl to catch the King's eye and she becomes a pawn in her family's game of politics and power in the Tudor court. She is already married to another man, but nevertheless she is ordered into the bed of Henry so that her family of Howards and Boleyns would get the King's favour.
The basic story is sadly familiar from history. Mary is cast aside as Henry's interests turn to the French-court-schooled sister of Mary, the dark and vivacious Anne. She wrappes the King around her little finger and marries him, after he has coldly removed his wife of two decades, Queen Katharine, from court and had his first marriage annulled.
From there on it is all just a question of breeding, really. Will the new Queen provide the nation with a strong male heir? Everything looks reasonably well, when the little princess Elizabeth, the future Queen of unrivalled magnificence, is born. But no son, no prince is born. In the tireless rumour mill that is the court of Henry, the Queen Anne is soon ground to pieces and her destiny is the sharp blade of the executioner's sword.
Although I was familiar with the history, the story still captured me. Gregory writes in a very simple and charming way. Compared to the excellent Lymond Chronichles (by Dorothy Dunnett) I've also been reading lately this was certainly an easier read to a non-native English speaker, if nothing else. I don't mind difficult language at all, it's part of the charm of Dunnett's work (and a challenge!), but Gregory's was the style of storytelling (and use of English language) I'd like to master myself.
In addition to the easy-flowing language, Gregory's choice of telling the story in the first person, in Mary's voice, is very effective. It enables the reader to relate to her, brings her character closer. And that, if anything, is a good sign in a historical novel - in any novel, really. I wouldn't want to read about a character I didn't care the least bit about.
Mary's life is a life of a courtier, and she isn't allowed to decide for herself, not until later in life. She struggles with her conscience as she beds the King while the Queen, whose lady-in-waiting Mary is, turns a blind eye to it all. She struggles to accept and obey her sister's every whim, as Anne replaces her as the favoured Boleyn girl. She cries bitter tears when Anne adopts her and Henry's bastard son, just so Anne could claim young Henry was a legal heir to the throne. But after it all, she is the Boleyn girl who wins it all, as she keeps her life when other Boleyn heads roll - literally. And of course, she also finds True Love. (And that courtship is described so endearingly, that it was nearly impossible to not feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Awww. Nice balance of "fade to black" and telling it all, also. - This is a comment that will probably best open up to the fanfic writers out there...)
All in all, I thought the novel described Mary and her life in the court very believably and entertainingly. Made me want to be able to travel back in time to Henry's court to see the grand masquerades and listen to the courtiers' poems myself. (Not to mention to see some of the gowns described, my gosh.) And besides, after reading a fictional description (even though admittedly quite well researched) of the court life, I'm once again pretty happy that I chose Henry's reign as my thesis topic. What a fascinating period in history it was.
On a tangent line of thought, I do have to say that writing a historical novel is, in a way, also a dream of mine. I've even toyed with an idea for one for a couple of years now. It'll probably never come to anything (I think I need a better idea, first of all), but it really would be a great way for me to express my enthusiasm about history and literature in the same package. I don' t know if I'd want to be a full-time professional researcher, but since I do like doing research and writing and telling stories about history, what better way to combine them than to write historical fiction? (Especially since I will, hopefully, have a steady income from teaching, heh.)
Ah, but I suppose I'd better get off this research break and get back to the non-fictional times of Henry VIII. Today's reading includes some 200 descriptions of different kinds of letters and papers from the year 1540. I've got to browse them through carefully enough to find any and all references to the Order. I've gone through some 800 documents already, and so far I've been able to find less than 20 documents... I hope that the personnel at the Order's archives in London will be able to point out more documents to me, as they said they could probably help me with my research. (And yes, this is just one part of the huge collection of documents from Henry's reign, so I expect I still have some thousands of descriptions to go through, yikes. Help would therefore be more than welcome...)