Thursday, 23 October 2014

Book Review: Mary Boleyn - Alison Weir

If I say the name Mary Boleyn to you, what instantly comes to mind?

I'll give you a minute.

If anything, I'm guessing you got as far as Anne Boleyn's sister? Henry VIII's mistress? Francois I's mistress? Well done, because that's about as much as anyone knows about her.

She's also a really interesting and sympathetic character in Wolf Hall which is why I decided I wanted to devote my precious free time to reading a whole book about her. Plus I really enjoyed Alison Weir's Six Wives of Henry VIII (featuring, of course, a Mary Boleyn cameo). An Alison Weir biography of Mary Boleyn seemed right up my street.

And it was, to a very large extent. Weir's book - Mary Boleyn: 'the Great and Infamous Whore' - is extremely compelling and immaculately researched. The writing is, as Weir's books always seem to be, some of the best in popular history; accessible, intensely readable and assuming only the most basic prior knowledge. Drawing on contemporary sources, and often discrediting later ones, the book paints a much fuller picture of 'the other Boleyn girl' than you'll get from any fictional account. She's not just Anne's sister or Henry's mistress, she's an interesting character in her own right who Weir clearly feels affection for.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the book is its comprehensive debunking of many of the accepted facts about Mary and her life. Did Francois I ever called Mary 'the great and infamous whore'? Nope, there's no credible evidence for that. Think her son, Henry Carey, was Henry VIII's bastard? Sorry, wrong again. Despite a lot of academics, contemporary and modern, suggesting that he was there's no credible evidence for that either. (Interestingly, Weir builds a very credible case that Mary's daughter, Catherine, is a much more credible potential Royal bastard.)

How about Mary herself, was she stupid and unimpressive? Well, she clearly had some questionable taste in men in her early years but the idea that she was the slack jawed yokel of the Boleyn clan is a gross oversimplification. And she was the last of the Boleyn siblings to die, happily married and in obscurity, so she can't have been that stupid now, can she?

The examination of contemporary sources to provide the evidence for all of this debunking is incredibly impressive, almost forensic. It's difficult to argue with any of Weir's conclusions without doing some serious research yourself. Who has time for that, really?

I suppose the only thing that spoiled my enjoyment of this book is that the contemporary sources on Mary are so few and as a result there are so many things that we will just never know about her. I'm no historian - this much is probably apparent - and I like my pop-history books to be able to give me some definitive facts. There are just so few of these about Mary Boleyn. After a while, I found the constant uncertainty frustrating. This isn't Weir's fault, clearly, but I just found it annoying that there's no way to prove all of her excellently constructed arguments right or wrong. I dropped history at AS level for a reason, I suppose.

Weir has written extensively on the Tudor period and, since I'm still going through my Tudor phase (though how long that will last since I've just picked up Hilary Mantel's French revolution set A Place of Greater Safety remains to be seen), I intend to read more. I'd certainly highly recommend Mary Boleyn to anyone interested in learning more about its much maligned subject, the Boleyn family generally and Henry VIII's court.

No comments:

Post a comment