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Conventions & Historical Accuracy of "The Other Boleyn Girl"

1) What were the social conventions of the time?

2) How do these social conventions relate to class and gender?

3) What is the historical accuracy of this book?

4) What are some examples of the inaccuracies that may exist in the book, since it is historical fiction, rather than a biography?

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Thank you for using! I believe I can help you with your questions today.

First, you ask about social conventions. Well, these are going to vary substantially depending on the nation we are discussing, the social class of the people you have in mind, the area of the country in question, whether the location is rural or urban, and other factors such as religion or even political beliefs. For example, rural farming folk in Yorkshire are going to have a very different set of social conventions from those of, say, a prosperous London merchant. Accepted social behavior for Protestants during the Reformation were very different than those of Catholics . . . acceptable clothing, allowable types of entertainment (such as dancing or theatre) and ways of behaving on Sundays, for instance. I will assume that you are most interested in social conventions for nobility in England, mostly vis-a-vis court life, in the years ca. 1529-1536 (the date of Anne's beheading). But be aware that other social conventions in this time period, outside of the very privileged and and relatively indolent court life, also come into play in this story.

For example, Mary weds William Stafford because she loves him. In the book, she is later portrayed as being unhappy at court and begs to return to country life. Very unlikely. In this time period (as in any time period) farming was difficult, dirty, unmechanized, and almost unending work. As a farmer's wife, Mary would have been expected to toil, sewing, mending, baking, cooking, tending livestock, managing household accounts and inventories, and even working in the fields, from sunup to sundown. This type of labor would have been something she was utterly unprepared for given her upbringing as a nobleman's daughter (one who could have anticipated a very different sort of life as a nobleman's wife). I suggest you take a look at good references on English Renaissance court life for more particulars, such as (on activities and entertainment);

Kathy Lynn Emerson's book called Wives and Daughters: The Women of Sixteenth Century England; or which mentions his court. is an especially useful site concerning customs and social conventions of the time (though not specifically about women).

Re historical accuracy (questions 3 and 4): there were many historical distortions and outright fact-altering in Gregory's book. Some critics found these alterations especially egregious given that Gregory lists historical sources she used in her research for the book, which seems to give the impression to the reader that she was going for historical accuracy. But as you rightly say, this book is not a history book or a biography, but rather a novel BASED on a certain time in history and on certain real people.

The biggest problem is of course, when we talk about historical accuracy in The Other Boleyn Girl, that there is just not that much verifiable information out there on Mary Boleyn. Gregory has a pattern in many of her books of taking a little-known "bit player" during a time of great historical upheaval, and making that "forgotten" person the center of her story. But of course this means that much of what she writes about the person's character and actions is historically unverifiable, so she can use her imagination to supply many important details and events.

Let me give you some specific examples of major historical inaccuracies in the book, which you can find out more about by taking a look at the research on the specific person, event, or family. I normally do NOT endorse using Wikipedia as a research site. However, I am a historian of this period in European history, and the following information found on that site is accurate. Note that I am endorsing this specific information ONLY (see below), and not Wikipedia and its articles in general, or other articles or information on this topic. I cannot verify if other information in Wikipedia is equally accurate.

Here are fourteen areas of disputed historical accuracy in the book, with explanation and a bit of background. It should definitely aid you in completing your assignment.

1. Birth order and early lives of the siblings. Many histories, including Eric Ives's biography of Anne Boleyn, suggest that Mary was almost certainly the elder sister, and the eldest of the Boleyn children, whereas The Other Boleyn Girl presents George as the eldest. Philippa Gregory responds: 'No. No-one knows the ages of the Boleyn girls; there is no record of their dates of birth.' Most scholars now accept c. 1499 for Mary, and 1501 or 1507 (disputed) for Anne (based on a letter she wrote in Belgium). However, a letter written by Mary Boleyn's grandson to Elizabeth I (1596), claiming the Ormonde estates/titles, indicates that Mary was the elder; a claim Elizabeth did not dispute. Historian Retha Warnicke argues that he was making the claim on the grounds that Elizabeth was illegitimate and therefore unfit to inherit the titles, but according to historian Joanna Denny, "only a mad man would so publically [sic] challenge the queen of an issue that smacked of high treason." Furthermore, Mary was married first, and by strict custom the elder daughter would be married before the younger, with very few exceptions. In addition, when Anne was made marquess of Pembroke in 1532 she was referred to as "one of the daughters of Thomas Boleyn," whereas if she were the eldest, it would likely have been mentioned. Anne Boleyn was first sent to the court of the powerful, accomplished Margaret of Austria in 1513 at age six or twelve (depending on which year she was born in), and the sisters met again in France to attend the marriage of Mary Tudor to an elderly King Louis XII in late 1514. Mary became engaged in an affair with the new King Francis I and a number of his courtiers. Francis I recalled his mistress Mary Boleyn as "una grandissima ribalda, infame sopra tutti" ("a great whore, infamous above all"), and his "English mare." Gregory denies that Mary had an affair with the French King. Mary Boleyn was recalled to England (c. 1519), where she was quickly married to William Carey, a minor noble, and almost immediately embarked on an affair with Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn stayed in France for almost two more years; she returned to England when relations between the two countries deteriorated and she was suggested as a potential bride for a distant cousin, James Butler, to settle a dispute over the Irish title of Ormonde. George Boleyn's birth date cannot be definitively placed, but Drs. Starkey and Ives believe he was the youngest surviving Boleyn child. He is believed to have been a juvenile at the time of his arrival at ...

Solution Summary

This solution is a detailed examination of the social conventions and historical details portrayed in Philippa Gregory's novel, "The Other Boleyn Girl." Supplemented with links to informative websites about the English Renaissance period, the solution presents and illuminates fourteen points of disputed historical accuracy, highlighting class and gender issues of the period.