Posted By Claire on April 26, 2011
The Last Boleyn by Karen Harper
Review by: Niki Incorvia
I knew very little about Mary Boleyn before I started reading The Last Boleyn, a historical fiction novel by Karen Harper. After finishing this book, I walked away with a great deal of respect for the “other Boleyn girl”. Harper carefully and insightfully articulates the often overlooked Mary Boleyn’s life, solely from her point of view. Her notorious sister, Anne, Henry VIII’s second wife, is merely a supporting character as her marriage to the king only intertwines and overlaps with Mary’s life in France and England.
Harper begins Mary Boleyn’s story with her being sent to France by her father, Thomas Boleyn, when Mary Tudor is contracted to marry the ailing French king. Harper has Mary meeting her second husband, William Stafford, in France where she is permitted to stay after her mistress, Mary Tudor, returns to England to marry the love of her life, Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. The author explains Mary’s reasons for becoming mistress of two kings as more of a “consequence” for the love she had for her father, as seen in this quote:-
“And father – well, he was as he was. Over the years, through the pain her love for him had caused, she had come to see him clearly. He loved his children only as a prideful possession, as his means up the royal ladder of riches and influence.
Harper’s depiction of Mary and the circumstances of her life are similar to Mary Boleyn: Mistress to the Kings, by Alison Weir, as follows:
- Brief affair with the King of France, Francis I, while lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude.
- Speculation now arises as to whether or not Mary’s children with her first husband, William Carey, are actually King Henry’s illegitimate children conceived when Mary was his mistress in the early 1520’s.
- Mary was banished from court after marrying William Stafford without royal consent.
- Retired to related obscurity after the death of her siblings.
There are some points in this book I do not agree with. I recognize that this is fiction, but there are a few dates and references that I am not sure are accurate. First, Harper subscribes to the 1507 date of birth for Anne Boleyn as shown in her referencing to the age of Mary in relation to Anne when they were both in France at the same time as ladies-in-waiting to Queen Claude. I believe Anne was 35 at the time of her execution. Second, Harper describes the birth order of the Boleyn children with George as the oldest, Mary the middle child, and Anne the youngest. I have heard this as a possible sequence of age before, but I am more of the mindset that George may have been the youngest, Mary the oldest, and Anne the middle child.
Also, Harper depicts Anne as a highly flirtatious woman with a vile temper; Anne is even referred to as a “minx” once or twice by Henry and the other men at court. It reminded me of the way Anne was portrayed in the movie version of The Other Boleyn Girl. Additionally, Harper makes no mention as to the English Reformation or the political wit of Henry’s second queen, but more how she was temperamental and vengeful in mending her broken heart after her love, Henry Percy, was taken from her. She even wrote how “something died inside of Anne when Percy was taken from her.” I am not sure if Harper’s motive was to enable the reader to sympathize with Mary and allow her to take on the protagonist in this book or she truly believed that was Anne’s character.
Also, there was no mention that William Carey was actually cousin to the king. Instead, the book explains Carey looking forward to the Boleyn match as a way to get back in the king’s good graces after his family was shamed in the generation before under Henry VII. The author makes it seem that Mary and William Carey had an unhappy marriage, which I am not sure of and have no grounds to disagree with. Another important aspect to this novel is Harper’s depiction of Mary’s relationship with her father and the ebbs and flows she experienced after being in his favor while in France, and his “disgust” and frustration with her after gaining nothing from two powerful European kings.
Harper is an excellent writer and re-tells history in a fascinating and coherent manner. It is amazing to think Mary, as neglected as she is by historians, is an ancestor to the current royal family in Britain. Overall I was very pleased with the book and if the author set out to tell Mary’s story as a brave young woman trapped by the ambitions of the Boleyn clan, she accomplished that in this book as it brings greater focus to the inspiring tale of Mary Boleyn.
Paperback: 592 pages
Publisher: Broadway (February 28, 2006)
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