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The Most Happy Feminist Witch

The lovely Natalie Grueniger, host of the “Talking Tudors”, gave me the honor of posting the following article I wrote on her website.
This article was originally an essay I wrote for a class on the Tudors in cultutre and contemporary literature which I took in university. It addresses the feminism and controversy surrounding Philippa Gregory’s best-selling novel, “The Other Boleyn Girl”.

The historical novel has become a prominent platform for female authors to rewrite women into history from which they have often been excluded. It takes its attention from ‘his-story’ and focuses on ‘her-story’. One of the most conspicuous authors of Tudor fiction is Philippa Gregory, an internationally acclaimed novelist, also known as “the queen of historical fiction” (Millen). She is one of many feminist authors who has engaged in the literary reconstruction of historical women and found the historical fiction genre to be an ideal platform to voice her contemporary political and feminist agendas through historical female figures (Barlow 109-10). Ever since the publication of the novel The Other Boleyn Girl in 2001, Gregory, who claims to be a feminist and radical historian, has been criticized for her portrayal of Anne Boleyn as “promiscuous” and “immoral” through the eyes of Anne’s less known sister, Mary Boleyn, the feminist heroine of the novel, whose independence leads her to a married domestic life (Bordo 511, 527). Additionally, Gregory’s methods in writing historical novels have many readers questioning her success in staying true to her description of herself as a feminist. The relevancy of these reviews is best assessed through her portrayal of Anne Boleyn in contrast to Gregory’s intended heroine in the novel. Popular history fiction writers can expect to be criticized for historical accuracies if and when they occur. Especially if inaccuracies disfigure well-known historical figures, like Anne Boleyn who, despite her tragic death, has continued to live in people’s memories as a woman ahead of her time. In order to understand the disappointment of Anne Boleyn’s contemporary admirers about Gregory’s portrayal of her in The Other Boleyn Girl, it is important to consider Anne’s position as a feminist icon in modern society and the way she is portrayed as a “witch” and a “seductress” from the author’s alleged feminist and historically accurate viewpoint.

Every author who writes historical fiction is faced with the challenge of puzzling together accepted historical facts and using creativity to fill in the historical gaps in a compelling manner for their readers, i.e. the thoughts, attitudes and emotions of historical figures. Philippa Gregory is no exception. However, Gregory has publicly defended the artistic liberties she takes in her works as “historical probability”. In her article in the Telegraph, Gregory writes: “When there is a choice of fact or fiction, I always choose the factual version” (Gregory). These proclamations have been the cause of ridicule amongst many scholars. Furthermore, Gregory, who views herself both as a trained historian and novelist, has through her work, namely The Other Boleyn Girl, been found to be at odds with herself as a self-claimed feminist. While historians are displeased that she defends her gaps as facts, feminists, especially those who hold Anne Boleyn in high regard as a feminist of her time, are displeased with how Gregory uses historical myths to portray Anne as a witch and considers them historically accurate.1
Gregory argues that before writing her novel, the retelling of Mary’s life was limited to a footnote to the story of her more conspicuous sister, Anne. She wrote in an article in the Telegraph, “Somewhere hidden in history is the real Mary, a woman deemed so unimportant that she was once known and then forgotten” (Gregory). Gregory’s choice of a neglected historical female accords with her dedication to rewriting women into history from which they have often been excluded. However, just as historians have critiqued Gregory for compromising Anne’s reputation, they have criticized her for glamorizing Mary’s historical reputation as known as a “great and infamous whore” who prior to her affair with Henry VIII had already been the mistress of king Francois I of France (Weir 19). However, it is important to mention that this interpretation of records on Mary by popular history has been hotly debated over the years and many Tudor scholars would hesitate to embrace Mary’s “promiscuous past” as a historical fact.

Generally, feminists would praise an author for redeeming a woman from such negative labels, but in the case of her novel The Other Boleyn Girl, Mary’s redemption is a historical inaccuracy at Anne Boleyn’s expense. By excluding Mary’s debatable “wanton” past, Gregory finds freedom to portray Mary as a sexually innocent woman, forced to leave her marriage to become the king’s mistress and that way further her family’s ambitions. The fact that Anne, despite being unmarried, is commissioned by her family “to teach Mary how to behave” actuates her stereotype as a seductress (OBG 18).

Anne Boleyn’s name, which centuries ago was dangerous to utter, is today widely worshipped and associated with third-wave feminism in our 21st century society (Bordo 19). This is evident with the multiple fan-pages, Facebook groups, Instagram profiles and even articles across the internet, created by fans of Anne demonstrating their admiration for her as a feminist icon. There are many reasons for Anne’s popularity, but Hilary Mantel, the first woman to win the Man Booker Prize more than once, effectively describes some of the reasons for our fascination with Henry VIII’s second bride (About Hilary Mantel) with the following words: “She is one of the most controversial female figures in English history; we argue over her, we pity and admire and revile her, we reinvent her in every generation. She takes on the colour of our fantasies and is shaped by our preoccupations: witch, bitch, feminist, sexual temptress, cold opportunist” (Russel). In her book The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Susan Bordo discusses the different recreations of the mysterious queen and explores her afterlife in popular culture. She calls Anne the “Marilyn Monroe in our time,” “an enigma who is hard to keep one’s hands off.” She explains how the desire to solve the mysteries of how Anne came to be, reign and perish compels writers (Bordo 20). Indeed, many writers, TV producers and even historians have in the past decades looked beyond Anne Boleyn’s well-known stereotypes as witch and seductress and offered their more humanized and feminist versions of her. These reconstructions underline the queen’s tremendous popularity and current status as a feminist icon.

With Anne Boleyn’s current celebrity status within a flourishing field of feminism in mind, it is not difficult to imagine the shock when a self-claimed feminist like Philippa Gregory, decides to portray Anne according to the old stereotypes as a seductress and her sister Mary as a virtuous heroine. According to Robin Maxwell, the well-known author of the highly praised novel The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, the novel is “a modern re-creation of Anne as a scheming viper”. In an interview with Susan Bordo, Maxwell says about Gregory’s novel: “It was a great read, a page-turner. But she had taken every rumor, every nasty thing that anyone had ever said about Anne Boleyn and turned it into the truth in her book” (Bordo 508-9). In essence, Gregory’s book, which has sold millions of copies and been successful with general readers in over twenty-six countries, has not been as celebrated by other novelists, historians and people well-read in the Tudor period (Bordo 512).

“She is one of the most controversial female figures in English history; we argue over her, we pity and admire and revile her, we reinvent her in every generation. She takes on the colour of our fantasies and is shaped by our preoccupations: witch, bitch, feminist, sexual temptress, cold opportunist”

Hilary Mantel

The ideal way to explore Gregory’s feminist ideas is through the contrasting characterization of the novel’s two main characters, Mary and Anne Boleyn. Both Anne and Mary end up in the bed of the king at some point in the novel. What Gregory emphasizes in each affair is the mindset of the sisters. Mary, who is forced to dishonor her marriage “that was for the making of children,” is at first reluctant to do so since she believes that what God has put together, no man could take apart (OBG 17). In the belief that she has no choice, Mary submits to the wish and command of her father and uncle and beds King Henry. After all, she is a woman living in a 16th century patriarchal society who “must be played to advantage” (17) to further the ambition of the family, known as “the family business” (200). Although Mary is always aware of the hurt she is causing Queen Katherine, who is to her like a “beloved mother” (299), she becomes more willing to participate in her family’s ambition when she falls in love with the man behind the crown. According to Anne, the man and the king are “one and the same thing” (51). She says to Mary, “You can’t desire him like an ordinary man and forget the crown on his head” (51). Unlike Mary, Anne’s eyes are on the crown. The Boleyn sisters’ contrasting motives for marriage are further underlined in the following conversation between the two sisters: “‘You’re always in love,’ Anne said crossly. [ . . .] It’s always seep seep seep with you: passion and feeling and desire. It makes me furious. I smiled at her. ‘Because you are all ambition,’ I said. Her eyes gleamed. ‘Of course. What else is there?’” (129). Since Mary is Gregory’s intended heroine, she reflects the ideals that Gregory values and Anne reflects the ones she does not. Mary values love, which must then be acceptable, but ambition is not.

Through Gregory’s narration of Anne, she appears to abandon her feminist ideals and portrays Anne as a devilish ambitious woman. Anne is ahead of Mary in her attempt to gain independence in her life. Anne, on her own, decides to take matters into her own hands and marry Henry Percy without asking her father for permission. However, Mary is the one who advises her against it and tells her that these are matters their father and uncle should settle for her; in other words, Anne should submit her life choices to male authority (91). In the novel it seems that Anne does indeed care for Percy, but she admits that she may find his title a bit more attractive than the man. Of course, when the sisters’ uncle finds out about Anne and Percy’s engagement and secret marriage, Anne is exiled from court. It is important to mention that this is not historically accurate, since according to the Cavendish account, Anne and Percy’s engagement was ended by the order of King Henry, not her uncle for family advancement (Hanson). Therefore, it is interesting that Gregory, who claims to be a feminist, and loyal to historical accuracy, should disregard historical evidence and at the same time punish Anne’s attempt to gain independence by pursuing Henry Percy.

Gregory’s disapproval of Anne is further evident in the consequences Anne is made to bear for using her sexuality to her advantage. Anne is aware of both her limitations to power as a woman and her family’s interest in gaining titles from her sexuality. However, instead of allowing her family to take full credit for her body she decides to use it to gain power. When Anne is sent by her family to entertain the king during Mary’s confinement, she decides to take matters one step further and pursue a marriage with King Henry. This is her ultimate goal since as queen she can exercise complete power over her own life. We know that historically Anne’s life was cut short in the end and it is therefore necessary for Gregory to include her tragic fate in the novel if she wants to stay true to the facts. However, what interests scholars is the reason Gregory gives for Anne’s downfall in her novel. Instead of portraying Anne as a woman who was ahead of her time in ambition or as victim to her king husband’s authoritarian desires, Gregory implies that Anne has “some dealing with the devil or some witchcraft” (439).  In the novel Anne is accused of taking her brother as her companion “to the gates of hell” (452) and for “making a contract with the devil” (478) due to the malformed fetus she miscarries. These accusations are based on theories from Retha Warnicke’s historical account of Anne Boleyn in her book, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, and on old Catholic propaganda which most historians have rejected (Bordo 18, 520). The way Gregory uses old myths to justify Anne’s execution and punish her for taking her ambition as far as she could makes for Gregory’s major flaw as both a historian and self-claimed feminist. Even Retha Warnicke is said to have distanced herself from Gregory’s interpretation of her work (Byrnes).
Anne is negatively portrayed for using her sexual advances to gain titles and independence and yet Mary is the true heroine according to Gregory because she decides to turn her back on “the family business”, marry the man she loves, despite his lack of title, and live a quiet country life. Oddly enough, it is Stafford, the man she truly falls in love with, who first explains to her that she has a choice: “While your family is so fixed on Anne, and her future is so unreliable, you could make your own future. You could make your own choice” (268). It is ironic for a self-claimed feminist to have her heroine go from listening to the advice of her father and uncle, to heeding advice from another man, instead of listening to her own reason. After all, Mary should be able to think for herself and make important life choices on her own. What is also important to notice is that Mary’s independent choice is made after she has lost her status as mistress with the king and when her family has no more use for her. Even after Mary has “had enough of playing the great game at court” (529) and makes an independent decision to marry Stafford, she is still easily manipulated by her family. On multiple occasions she is told that if she does not complete the tasks given to her she will be denied seeing her children. Gregory’s feminist values as portrayed through her main characters come across as paradoxical. Independence is valued, if it is for love, but ambition is not. Although some may view Gregory’s portrayal of Anne as simply fictive and imaginative, Gregory has publicly expressed her negative view of Anne Boleyn and implied that Mary is the true feminist – not Anne. In Gregory’s article in the Telegraph she recounts her discovery of Mary as a historical figure and the reason she made her the heroine of her novel. This is what she has to say about the Boleyn sisters: “And finally, I saw her as a girl who fell in love with the most powerful and handsome man in England, who saw her own sister poach him, marry him, and watched her sister’s ambition drive her and the rest of Mary’s family to death” (Gregory, my emphasis). Therefore, Gregory’s opinion of Anne in the novel seems consistent with her actual personal view of her.

“Ms. Gregory is a very good and CONVINCING author, and it took me reading some other books afterwards to ‘detox’ Gregory’s Anne from my mind!”

A reader of The Other Boleyn Girl

Some readers may ignore the historical and feminist controversies surrounding Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and justify them on the grounds of a writer’s right to creativity. Others view the novel as a direct reflection of Gregory’s opinions and values. Historians and women like Susan Bordo, a specialist in feminist cultural studies, are concerned that the novel may misinform those new to the subject with faulty mythology about Anne. Many readers have devoured The Other Boleyn Girl and consider it to be historically accurate as this reader’s comment indicates: “Ms. Gregory is a very good and CONVINCING author, and it took me reading some other books afterwards to ‘detox’ Gregory’s Anne from my mind!” (Bordo 15, 528). Authors of historical fiction have a great influence on how readers view and interpret history. Many people believe that when authors label their work as historically accurate, they can be trusted. Problems arise when people put their history books aside to read historical fiction they believe to convey historical truths. This is why it is important for fans of Anne Boleyn that authors, like Gregory, who claim to be feminist and true to historical accuracy, avoid placing labels on historical figures that may not deserve them and portray them in a respectful and unprejudiced manner. Yet, although Gregory may need to reconsider her claims as a feminist and a historian committed to historical accuracy, many readers have her novel to thank for igniting their interest in the Tudor era. The ability to open people’s eyes to the mysterious and fascinating world of human history, and to help readers learn from mankind’s past mistakes, is a talent to be greatly admired.

// Royal Redhead


[1] I have been aware of this with my own participation in Facebook groups and Instagram profiles
relating to the Tudor period.

Works Cited

“About Hilary Mantel.” Hilary Mantel: Author of the Man Book Prize-Winning Bestsellers Wolf
Hall and Bring up the Bodies, Accessed 29 Oct.
Barlow, Jenna Elizabeth. Women’s Historical Fiction “After” Feminism: Discursive Reconstructions of the Tudors
in Contemporary Literature. 
PhD Thesis. Diss. Stellenbosch University, April 2014,
2014.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y. Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.

Bordo, Susan. The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. EPUB file.

Byrnes, Paul. “The Other Boleyn Girl.” The Syndey Morning Herald, 13 March 2008,
Accessed 29. Oct. 2018.

Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. HarperCollinsPublishers, 2017.

—. “The Other Boleyn Girl: History in the making.” The Telegraph, 23 Feb. 2008,
making.html. Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.

Hanson, Marilee. “The relationship between Henry Percy & Anne Boleyn 1523.” English
4 Feb. 2015,
Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.
Millen, Robbie. “Bow down before Philippa Gregory, the reigning queen of historical fiction.”
The Times, 3 August, 2017,
philippa-gregory-the-queen-of-historical-fiction-fn685g30b. Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.

Russel, Bruno. “Anne Boleyn: A Feminist Icon?”. Wessex Scene, 6. Jan. 2017,
Accessed 29. Oct. 2018.

Weir, Alison. Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings. McClelland & Stewart, 2011. EPUB file.

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