Like nearly everyone of my generation, I soaked up a good deal of cinematic royal lore through films like Anne of a Thousand Days (whose title role was memorably played by Canada’s own Genevieve Bujold) or TV series such as “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,”to name only a couple of many popularizations inspired by a truly fascinating period in history.
"Mary Boleyn may never be the subject of a movie or television series, but Alison Weir’s unflagging respect for one woman’s contribution to history as an important supporting presence is indeed praiseworthy."
But was Anne Boleyn’s elder sister, Mary, ever mentioned? Was she a barely noticed bit-part? A whispered voice from the wings? Honestly, I don’t know. If a Mary Boleyn was spoken of, her name passed by me and 99 percent of the rest of the world.
Fortunately, Mary did not miss being noticed by acclaimed British historian and novelist Alison Weir. In MARY BOLEYN: THE MISTRESS OF KINGS, Weir spares no expense of scholarly effort to turn over and scrutinize every available detail on a woman whose influential family spanned many generations in and around the corridors of monarchic power.
I was half expecting Weir to bring out a narrative approach to Mary Boleyn’s life and times, one that would weave pragmatic facts within a tapestry of imaginative and emotive prose recounting what it might have been like to be part of life at court in the 16th century. I wanted to know things like the color of Mary’s hair and eyes, whether she had any hobbies or owned any pets, or what her childhood was like. But made-up “facts” or romanticized speculations are not what this book is about.
This time, the author’s academic hat is firmly positioned. The challenge (well worth it) is to follow her through an intricate but elegant structure of investigative inquiry that not only engages the mind, but celebrates the importance of questioning so-called “common knowledge.” And Weir is tirelessly serious about her cause: her copious endnotes are supported by a bibliography of nearly 400 entries, of which fully one-quarter are listed as primary sources.
While the duty of cross-checking each and every reference is best left to academic readers (whose needs are served outstandingly well here), I couldn’t resist taking a random detour to the back of the book once in a while to find out a bit more. In persuading an interested lay reader like me to do so, Weir has achieved the enviable skill of blending the necessary forensic and analytical tasks of academia with the passionate engagement that avocational history lovers crave.
This densely-written volume (a superb graduate-level textbook, to be honest) is one meant for many returns, not to be remembered after one reading as an easily digested storyline --- something it was not meant to deliver. Yet, for all its myriad details and focused probing into the intimate life, social adventures, tragedies and familial relations of one undeservedly obscure figure in history, MARY BOLEYN: THE MISTRESS OF KINGS is surprisingly accessible. You don’t feel like you’ve been through literary bootcamp when the final page is turned, nor do you feel the book should have been any longer.
Mary Boleyn may never be the subject of a movie or television series, but Alison Weir’s unflagging respect for one woman’s contribution to history as an important supporting presence is indeed praiseworthy.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on November 3, 2011