I haven't read much of Philippa Gregory, and up to now, the only novel of hers that I found agreeable was The Constant Princess (and even that, I thought, was repetitive and on the politically correct side). I loathed all of the characters in The Virgin's Lover, so much that I never got past the first few chapters, and though The Other Boleyn Girl had some memorable scenes and vivid characters, the whole thing struck me as smarmy. But I'm always up for another round with Henry VIII and his wives, so I put myself on the library waiting list for The Boleyn Inheritance.
And I'm pleased to report that I enjoyed it immensely.
The Boleyn Inheritance is told by Jane, Lady Rochford, widow of the executed George Boleyn; Anne of Cleves; and Katherine "Kitty" Howard. Jane, self-justifying and self-deceiving, is obsessed with her past yet determined to do whatever she has to do in order to restore her life to its former glamour. Anne, no stupid Flanders mare but a sensible, honorable young woman who longs for freedom and respect, finds that she has exchanged the petty humiliations of her brother's court for the reign of terror of Henry's. Kitty is an airheaded teenager, with an endless capacity to push aside unpleasant realities in favor of her more satisfying preoccupations: young men, jewels, and pretty clothes. Manipulating Jane and Kitty is the sinister Duke of Norfolk, and stalking through all three women's lives is the unpredictable, increasingly tyrannical Henry VIII.
Gregory juggles the heroines' stories masterfully. Even when Anne of Cleves is relegated to the background and the machinations of the Duke of Norfolk and Jane take center stage, Anne remains to comment on what she sees around her. She, the outsider, becomes both the moral center of the novel and the narrator on which the reader can most rely for an accurate perception of events. Kitty's adolescent preoccupations and mercurial character are captured wonderfully, while Jane, morally repulsive as she is, has a normalcy about her that keeps us reading her story and wondering at her motivations.
There's a certain humor here, often quite dark, that was missing altogether in the very earnest Constant Princess. Much of this comes from Kitty's youthful blatherings ("France would be wonderful, except I cannot speak French, or at any rate only "voila!" but surely they must mostly all speak English? And if not, then they can learn?"), but the more cynical Jane Rochford contributes some memorable lines: "If she declares herself Dereham's wife, then she has not then cuckolded the king but only Dereham; and since his head is on London Bridge, he is in no position to complain."
And neither am I. Read this one.