The Boleyn Inheritance

Philippa Gregory

Set in the turbulent world of the court of Henry VIII in 1539-1542, The Boleyn Inheritance covers wives number 4 and 5 in Henry's collection, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard. All the main characters are historical.

In 1539, three contrasting women dream of going to the English court. Jane Boleyn, who gave evidence against her husband George Boleyn and his sister Queen Anne Boleyn that helped send them to the block, is haunted by their ghosts and desperate to get back to the excitement and intrigue of the court to rebuild her fortunes. Anne of Cleves yearns to make a good marriage to get away from her unpleasant mother and brother. Katherine Howard, a giddy teenager for whom the term 'sex kitten' could have been coined, wants to go to court so she can wear pretty dresses and dance with handsome boys. King Henry's matrimonial desires give all three women their wish - but it is not long before political faction-fighting and the capricious whims of a tyrannical king threaten all their lives.

I've found some of Philippa Gregory's novels disappointing. The paranormal hocus-pocus in The Queen's Fool annoyed me, and at the (welcome) end of The Virgin's Lover I could only conclude that all these silly, selfish, spiteful people were welcome to each other, and would Philip of Spain please hurry up with that Armada? So I skipped the next offering, and picked this one up with some caution. Well, I can't speak for its historical accuracy or otherwise, though previous track record would make me cautious on that front, but at least it works as an enjoyable read.

The story is told by three first-person narrators, Jane Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Anne of Cleves. All three have voices so distinct that I never needed to look at the chapter headings to see who was speaking, and their contrasting characters were the great strength of the novel for me. Katherine Howard is exactly as I always imagined her, as pretty and playful and charming as a kitten and with about as much sense. Her narrative, with its comedy and vivacity, reminded me of a sixteenth-century Bridget Jones's Diary. I half-expected the chapters to begin:

Watching this harmless girl dance heedlessly to her doom with not a thought in her head beyond boys and pretty dresses is pitiful, with the same sense of pointless waste as seeing a butterfly or a fluffy baby bird squashed on the road.

Jane Boleyn is a cynical commentator on the follies around her, believing herself such a woman of the world. Some of her asides have an attractive wry humour to them, such as her comment, "If she declares herself Dereham's wife then she has not cuckolded the king, only Dereham, and since his head is on London Bridge he is in no position to complain." Yet in her way she is as self-deluded as Katherine Howard, and naïve enough to put her trust in princes (or in her case, the Duke of Norfolk). Haunted by the deaths of her husband and sister-in-law, she tries to convince herself and those around her that she was blameless, that her part in their fate was unintentional - and indeed, she may well have been used then by those cleverer and more powerful than herself, just as she is being used again.

Anne of Cleves is a level-headed, courageous and quietly intelligent young woman. True, she was lucky that Henry found it easier to get rid of her by annulment rather than murder, but she had the good sense to grasp the opportunity for escape when it was offered and to accept undeserved humiliation as the price of staying alive. She probably came out the most unscathed of Henry's wives, with her life and a private income, and like a sensible woman she made the best of it and made a reasonable life for herself. As she herself comments in the novel, "…it may be a better thing to be a single woman with a good income in one of the finest palaces in England than to be one of Henry's frightened queens."

King Henry is a Bluebeard-like ogre, probably a fairly accurate depiction of him in his later life. At the safe distance of 400+ years it's possible to feel a little sorry for him, tormented by his paranoid suspicions and the physical pain of a revolting disease. On the spot, at the time, I should imagine he inspired mostly terror.

Prize for Top Villain, however, undoubtedly goes to the reptilian Duke of Norfolk, so remorseless and ruthless a schemer that you feel you ought to hiss every time he comes on stage. This remarkable political survivor, who successfully rode all the storms and tempests of Henry's court, created a good many of them and always managed to get someone else's neck on the block instead of his own, could have taught Machiavelli a thing or two.

There are some faintly icky aspects to the novel that might upset some readers. Katherine Howard is portrayed as only fourteen when she first caught the king's eye. This is at the younger end of the likely range (the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography gives her date of birth as somewhere between 1518 and 1524), which makes Henry even more of a cradle-snatcher and casts Katherine's first seducer, the music teacher Henry Mannox, in a decidedly unpleasant light, as she would have been only eleven at the time of his attentions. The dysfunctional relationship between Anne of Cleves and her brother Duke William is repeated rather heavily, and I was relieved that this aspect disappeared from the story early on when Anne left for England.

The novel is written in present tense throughout, which I find mildly irritating. It always has the effect of distancing me from the characters and events, and feels rather like watching a longwinded screenplay. Perhaps that's the idea - maybe it makes it quicker to adapt next time Hollywood fancies another festival of pretty frocks, heaving bosoms, sex and murder.

Sex, lies and death at the court of Henry VIII.