The Boleyn Inheritance was my third Philippa Gregory book, and so far, I think it’s the best. The novel is split across three points of view — Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Jane Boleyn — and covers the period when an increasingly tyrannical Henry VIII married Anne on the basis of a portrait, and then decided that he’d prefer her teenage maid in waiting Katherine instead.
Both Anne and Jane are wonderfully written, compelling characters. Anne of Cleves tells the story of a quietly dignified outsider, struggling to survive in a deadly foreign court and, in the process, discovering precisely who she wants to be. Jane Boleyn, meanwhile, is a fantastic unreliable narrator, as she refuses to admit, even to herself, precisely what happened three years ago at Anne Boleyn’s trial. I’ve gathered, from other reviews of the book, that we’re supposed to despise Jane as the villain — she did, after all, testify against Anne Boleyn and her husband George, and she certainly hasn’t abandoned her scheming ways here. Yet I think Gregory establishes her in a world where it is almost impossible for a woman to be a major player and survive, and although Jane makes very questionable decisions (to say the least), we get the sense that she’s also being manipulated and used and doing her best to stay ahead. She’s not a likeable character, perhaps, but Gregory managed to make her a somewhat sympathetic one. Or perhaps Game of Thrones has just made me more accepting of ruthless, self-serving characters.
The only perspective that didn’t work for me was Katherine Howard. She’s presented her as a completely naive, completely superficial character who cares for absolutely nothing except attention and pretty possessions, and who couldn’t identify danger until it came to cut off her head. As there’s little historical evidence about Katherine Howard, I found it hard to understand why Gregory chose to make her so useless and empty-headed. She’s very young here — fourteen when the story starts — but that doesn’t mean that she can’t be a compelling character in her own right. After a couple of hundred pages with Katherine, I did develop some affection for her, but her characterization was poor compared to the other two narrators.
I know that The Other Boleyn Girl is the famous one in this series, but I found The Boleyn Inheritance to be far superior. As it covered the story of three different women who were embroiled in the same events, it had the opportunity to present the same things from several different points of view, from the court survivor to the awkward outsider to the naive new girl, and the world seemed to gain depth as a result. As it only covers a two or three year period, the plot also felt tighter than the decades-spanning The Other Boleyn Girl.
If you’re interested in Tudor England and want a book that’s low on the romance, but high on varied and compelling female characters, give this one a try.