Title: Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore
Author: Alison Weir
Genre: History, Biography
Format: Audiobook (length 13 hours, 11 minutes)
Published: 2011 (audiobook released Sept 2012)
Rating: 4 out of 5
Of all the periods in English history, the time of the Tudors is the one that fascinates me most. The people, the politics, the intrigue. Over the years, I’ve lost count of how many books I’ve read about Henry VIII, his wives and his children. Other than in passing in these books, I’ve never read anything about Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne, mistress of Henry VIII and, quite possibly, mother of at least one of his illegitimate children. Coming across this biography in my local library, written by one of my favourite authors, seemed like a good opportunity to fix that. This was also a bit of an experiment for me as it was an audiobook, not something I normally choose but – with lots of long drives ahead of me in my new job – I thought it may be a good way to fill in the hours on the road.
The format itself had plus and minuses for me. On the plus side, I enjoyed listening in the car (whereas normally I would just be aimlessly flicking between stations most times) and it made being stuck in traffic much more tolerable. The narration was really clear and had a good pace so I was able to maintain my focus (which I’d been worried about as I do tend to wander when I listen to plays on Radio 4). However, as this was a biography with lots of dates, names and places, there were times when I wished I could go back to more easily to remind myself or check something. By the end, I had learnt to not worry about it too much and just go with the flow but it did take a while.
The book was really interesting, especially because I knew so little about Mary so as a subject it felt new and fresh. It dispelled a lot of myths about Mary and helped me form a much fuller picture of her and her place in history in my mind. It turns out, pretty much everything I thought I knew about Mary wasn’t true and I feel much more sympathetic towards her. My ending up with a more realistic picture of Mary would probably make Alison Weir happy one of her stated intentions was to help readers separate fact from fiction (including The Other Boleyn Girl books and films and The Tudors TV show, which were very popular whilst she was researching and writing this book).
One of the reasons that there are so many myths is that so little is actually known and, over the years, Mary has been subject to some very bad PR, being painted as a woman of “easy virtue” and not too bright. Alison Weir does a good job of building on what little is known to develop a pretty solid picture of Mary; as she does, she explains what she feels is credible evidence and why, and why she has made the assumptions she has. These include reaching the conclusion that not only did Mary have an affair with Henry, she did give birth to his daughter. Rather than being dim-witted or of loose morals, the Mary Weir describes is one who had very little control over her life until her later years, when she took the incredibly brave step for the time of marrying for love, saying “I had rather beg my bread with him than be the greatest queen christened”.
The main problem is this lack of solid facts about Mary, so Weir has to make a lot of assumptions, either from the little information that is available or from the lives of others, including her husband, her father, her sister or Henry’s other mistresses. It means as a reader you really are still not much clearer on the real Mary, unless you chose to see her as Alison Weir does (it’s what I chose to do). In a way, this makes Mary even more intriguing and it’s a pity there won’t likely be the opportunity to ever learn more.
Definitely a good read for history buffs or those, like me, who find the Tudor period fascinating. Is that you?