The Boleyn Inheritance

The Tudors are a bit of a cottage industry these days. And the reigning queen of Tudor fiction, at least in terms of popularity, is Philippa Gregory. Her books, most of which focus on the women of Henry VIII’s court, are a historical fiction sensation. But do they live up to the hype?

I’ve had a hard time making up my mind about Gregory. My first Gregory was The Constant Princess, which I listened to on audio. I could get past her suggestion that Katherine of Aragon actually slept with her first husband, Henry VIII’s brother Arthur, even though this goes against the consensus of most historians. I thought the possibility made for an interesting thought experiment, even if I wasn’t convinced. But I was more troubled by her tendency to make Katherine too modern, too enlightened, too politically correct. Would Katherine have actually sought out a Muslim doctor? Would she have worn Muslim garments, even if behind closed doors? This didn’t ring true to me and seriously detracted from my enjoyment of the book. (And don’t get me started on the whole salad business.) But, that said, the book was entertaining and made the drive to and from work a bit more pleasant, so I wasn’t ready to dismiss Gregory.

I then read The Other Boleyn Girl, which offered another thought experiment: Might Anne Boleyn have actually been guilty of adultery and even incest? Here again, Gregory seemed to be trying to make her central character, Mary Boleyn, likable by giving her contemporary values. In this case, Mary Boleyn rebels against the English nobility’s common practice of letting others raise their children. This was somewhat more believable than her characterization of Katherine, so I wasn’t terribly annoyed and was able to just enjoy the story, even if I had to roll my eyes at it from time to time.

So now we have The Boleyn Inheritance. It’s been sitting on my shelf for a while, and I finally read it because it was the winning selection in my first “What Should I Read Next?” giveaway. I’ve heard that this is the best of Gregory’s books, and I agree with that assessment, at least regarding the first half.

Instead of one central character, we have three: Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Jane Boleyn. The three women alternate chapters, each giving her own perspective on the action. I really enjoyed the multiple perspectives, and I was very glad to learn something about two of Henry’s wives that I previously knew only as names in a list. Of course, I don’t assume that Gregory was accurate in her characterization of them, but I do feel better able to keep the broad outlines of their stories straight in my head. (And a quick skim of the relevant chapters in Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII verifies that she got the broad outlines right.)

Unfortunately, by the end of the book, I started to get frustrated with the storytelling. How many times do we have to hear Katherine count her new dresses? We know–she likes dresses. How many times do we have to hear Jane obsess over what her life might have been had Anne Boleyn only lived? We know–she has regrets. How many times does Anne have to talk about being afraid of the scaffold? We know–being Henry’s queen is perilous. Yes, it got tedious. And I was, as usual, jarred by the anachronistic attitudes that snuck in, as when Anne of Cleves snickers when the priests are praying over her marriage bed. Really? Snickering?

And so I’ve finally made up my mind about Philippa Gregory: She’s just not for me. Her stories are entertaining, and I completely understand why people like them, but the anachronisms and the repetitive explaining keep them from satisfying me. I’ve already given away the last two unread Tudor books on my shelf (The Queen’s Fool and The Virgin’s Lover ), and I have no intention of picking up her next, The Other Queen, which is about Mary Queen of Scots. Maybe I’d give one a listen in the car, if the pickings were slim in the audio section of the library one week, but that’s as far as I’m likely to go.

Instead, I’ll get my Tudor fix from Alison Weir, the popular historian who has just ventured into historical fiction. Her Innocent Traitor, about Lady Jane Grey, was quite good, and she’s just released a book on Elizabeth I called The Lady Elizabeth, which I’ll probably read eventually.

And, of course, I’m always interested in historical fiction from other eras. Any recommendations for historical fiction that isn’t too anachronistic but also a ripping good read?

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13 Responses to The Boleyn Inheritance

  1. Jenny says:

    [cough] Patrick O’Brian [cough] :)

  2. Teresa says:

    How did I know you’d suggest Patrick O’Brian, Jenny? I know, I know, he’s just so prolific that I have to dig myself out of the mountain of books I’m under now before tackling him :-) Maybe he’ll be my reward for reaching the summit of Mt. TBR!

  3. tbellsbooks says:

    I’m a big fan of Henry VIII six wives. Fascinating women all of them. They deserve really good treatment in fictionalization of their lives. Katherine of Aragon was very devout, very Catholic. She wore hair shirts under her gowns in penance. She fought so hard against the charges that she had actually slept with Arthur that one really believes it. Remember, she was examined prior to her marriage to Henry and found still virgo intacta. That is why she was allowed to marry the brother.

    Anne of Cleves only worried about the gallows for a very tiny while. She offered the divorce. After that, she stayed in England when she could have returned to her own country. She loved having her own establishment. She and Henry were great friends after the divorce. He often sought her counsel, too.

    Too much liberty with historical fact does not make a good story. Try Laurien Gardner. “A Lady Raised High” is a good place to begin with her books. This is one about Anne Boleyn. See if you like it. You can find it at under Historical Fiction.

    I can think of quite a few others that are a little older, some may be on audio now.

  4. Suggestions? Try Sharon Penman (she’s got a new novel coming out this fall). I really enjoyed The King’s Touch by Jude Morgan also.

    If you like the Tudor era, several of Nora Lofts’ novels set during this period have been reissued.

  5. Lesley says:

    I have been meaning to read one of Alison Weir’s novels for quite some time now. I enjoy Phillippa Gregory’s books, too but I think Weir’s would be more historical, less of the fiction.

  6. Juxtabook says:

    I had my suspicions about Gregory and have never fancied trying her work as a result. Not entirely prejudice, but rather based on what I have heard in interviews with her. You’ve have confirmed my fears!

    I have recently really enjoyed C. J. Ransom’s Dissolution (with some minor reservations) which I will review in the next few days. I also enjoyed Sarah Bower’s The Needle in the Blood, again with a few minor reservations. The trouble with historical fiction is that it is never quite right.

  7. Teresa says:

    Tbellsbooks: Thanks for the additional information on Katherine and Anne. I suspected Anne really only feared execution for a short time; the harping on it ceased to make sense after a while. I agree that historical fiction is best when it doesn’t take so many liberties. And thanks for the recommendation! I hadn’t heard of Laurien Gardner, so I’ll be sure to look her up.

    Susan: Oh yes, Sharon Penman. I keep hearing about her but haven’t given her a try. I’m sure my library has at least some of her books. I don’t think I’ve heard of Jude Morgan or Nora Lofts, but I’ll look them up too.

    Lesley: Yes, do give Alison Weir a try. I read Innocent Traitor shortly after The Constant Princess, and I was equally swept up in the story and less frustrated by the inaccuracies.

    Justabook: I’ll look forward to seeing your review on Dissolution. Adverts for Sansom’s latest were plastered all over the walls of the Tube when I was in London this past spring, and I wondered if the books were any good–I hadn’t heard about them at all on this side of the pond. And I’ll add The Needle in the Blood to my list of books to look up. I agree that so much historical fiction is never quite right. Dorothy Dunnett is the gold standard as far as I’m concerned, but I wouldn’t want all the historical fiction I read to be as ambitious as hers.

  8. Juxtabook says:

    Teresa – my review of Dissolution is now up, , and I’ve linked back here in the post as I cover some of the same areas, and it is a Tudor piece too of course.

  9. Tara says:

    I’ve read part of one by Gregory – Wideacre, I think it was called. I found it to be really, um, trashy, is the word I guess and just over the top ridiculous. I got rid of it, and I will probably never try another by her.

  10. Pingback: The Lady Elizabeth « Shelf Love

  11. Bumblebee says:

    im a big fan of the movie the other bolen girl, but the book is quite boring ;-)

  12. Lily says:

    The liberties she takes with Katherine of Aragon are absurd. That lady’s character was well known, and lying under oath wasn’t any part of it. I also did not believe the big love affair with Arthur.

    But her The Other Boleyn Girl was interesting, and even the incest idea, while not exactly likely, was fascinating. After all, we do know that Anne was desperate. But was she that desperate? Hmm…nah.

    I agree that Gregory does not hew closely enough to the truth. It was dramatic enough; no need to make stuff up.

  13. Jess says:

    My first introduction to Anne Boleyn was with ‘Doomed Queen Anne’ by Caroline Meyer and it’s still one of my favourites.

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