Audiobook narrated by Pippa Bennett-Warner, Georgia Maguire and Cathleen McCarron / Running time: 17:12:04 / Published by HarperCollins August 2018.
Opening sentence: “It is hot today, the wind blows over the flat fields and marshes with the stink of the plague.”
I’m a recent historical fiction convert. After reading (well, listening to) and loving The Other Boleyn Girl, I was keen to stay in Tudor times. Luckily, Philippa Gregory has a wealth of books (not all set during Tudor times, but some) and six of them are being released this year as new unabridged audiobook recordings. The Boleyn Inheritance is the follow up to The Other Boleyn Girl and it features three fantastic narrators, each taking a lead character: Jane Boleyn, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard.
The Boleyn Inheritance covers the period in history when Henry VIII is looking for his fourth wife (after number three, Jane Seymour, died due to childbirth complications) and we get the point of view of the situation from three women. The first is Jane Boleyn. Sister-in-law of a previous queen, Anne and a lady-in-waiting of whatever queen happens to be on the throne. She is a very interesting character as not only is she a continuous presence in court throughout all the queen changes, but it was her that provided the damning evidence in the trial of Anne Boleyn and her brother George (Jane said they were having an incestuous relationship) that had them sent to the block. Jane Boleyn was a ruthless, self-preserving, Machiavellian character and yet I had not heard about her until these novels. If she had been a man, no doubt there would be reams of books about her.
The other two women we hear from are Henry’s fourth and fifth wives, widely known as ugly Anne of Cleves and stupid Katherine Howard. BUT Author Philippa Gregory makes a brilliant point in a short interview after the audiobook: She notes how women’s history is so often not recorded, the role, thoughts and feelings of women are generally dictated by men, so we have a warped view of what really happened and their characters. In The Boleyn Inheritance, Gregory set out to challenge the consensus that Anne was ugly and Katherine stupid. Anne of Cleves was apparently so unattractive that Henry VIII rejected his marriage to her, but when you look at her portrait (below left) the reality is that she was an attractive woman, certainly no ogre, but he could not consummate the marriage and laid all the blame at Anne’s door. Katherine Howard was one of Anne’s ladies and Henry took a shine to her. He was in his late 40s when he cast Anne aside and married teenage Katherine Howard. Unsurprisingly, she was not cut out to be queen, as she was practically a child and used as a pawn by her ambitious family.
When you think about it, does it seem likely that that the fault lay with the ALL of Henry’s wives and not with Henry? That the man about who there is much documented about his deteriorating mental and physical health, tyrant tendencies and God-complex, is perfect, while the women in his life had all the issues? On a side note, these particular sentences made a certain current world leader spring to mind, and thinking about it, he does share striking similarities with the deluded, ageing, unlikable King Henry: ‘In the morning he will say one thing and in the evening be a passionate advocate of the opposite course. He acts as if he cannot remember the morning and no one cares to remind him.’
I love how Philippa Gregory is calling out this one-sided male view of history and giving a voice to these women. Yes, it’s fictional, but it also felt so logical to give a feminist spin to some of the most famous historical stories. What makes this book so fascinating is when you take a moment to remember that the facts are real – the story that makes this a page-turner is based on events that actually happened and Philippa Gregory’s uncanny ability to get into the minds of women of the era gives it such a human, personal take that combined these make it a truly brilliant read!