When I first turned the opening pages of Alison Weir’s 2009 biography of Mary Boleyn I have to confess to feeling a little nervous. Mary, whatever her virtues, is essentially a footnote in history. Promoting a footnote to a main character can be troublesome.
Like most Tudor fans, I’d been more than a little appalled by ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ (only seen the film, sure the book is much better) and incredulous as to how it had warped many of my friend’s understanding of the era. Would this biography risk doing the same?
But of course, with Alison Weir at the helm, it was a question I never should have asked.
From her early years in England to her time at the French court, Weir sheds light on the upbringing of a woman who – while perhaps never a major player – was witness to some of the most extraordinary events of her time. As a mistress to the Kings of both France and England, Mary’s reputation has suffered much over the centuries, but the author’s ability to set the events in context and divorce fact from rumour, gives the elder Boleyn sister something of a reprieve, at least in the eyes of a modern reader.
There is of course, much about her life that we can never know and many periods where no one saw fit to chronicle her activities. Even her date of birth remains a mystery, but with Weir’s rare ability to combine robust research with intelligent inference based on surrounding and circumstantial information, we come as close as we are ever likely to, to discovering the true character and personality of a woman condemned to history as a ‘great and infamous whore.’
While the book’s chapters are on the long side, the fascinating sense of storytelling makes it a page turner. I am slow reader but had polished it off in just a few sessions. Complete with a summary of the rise of the Boleyns and Henry VIII’s early extra-marital antics the book provides a different perspective of the 1520s and 30s which further illuminates our understanding of those who were at the heart of them.
I am a big fan of historical fiction and delight in the fact that my obscure interests occasionally become mainstream, but as far as I’m concerned, it should be made compulsory that anyone who has ever watched ‘The Other Bolyen Girl’ should quickly follow up the experience with a read of Weir’s biography. It’s just as entertaining and helps unearth, rather than distort, one of the most fascinating episodes of England’s history.
Mary Boleyn: ‘The Great and Infamous Whore’ by Alison Weir is published by Vintage and available on Amazon from £9.99