This was an uneven book that ultimately triumphed because of the sensitive and nuanced portrayal of its protagonist. While the story differs significantly in detail from Philippa Gregory's better known The Other Boleyn Girl, in this novel, Mary Boleyn is also both sympathetic and a fascinating character in her own right.
My interest in Mary Boleyn, sister of the more famous Anne and aunt of the still more famous Elizabeth I, began prior to the release of
The Other Boleyn Girl, which remains my favorite work of fiction on the subject. I was fixated with the first throwaway line I read about her, in a biography of Elizabeth I. Although I was first disappointed that Philippa Gregory had beaten me to the punch in writing about Mary Boleyn, Karen Harper (and others, I'm sure) actually got there first. The Last Boleyn was first published in 1983.
The events of The Last Boleyn are, at least at first, more in line with Alison Weir's biography than those of The Other Boleyn Girl. Instead of England, Mary's story begins in France, where she has two formative experiences that color her life. First, she comes to the French court as the lady-in-waiting for Henry VIII's sister, Mary Tudor, who marries the aged French king. When the king dies a few months later, Mary Tudor secretly weds her lover Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. She brazenly secures her own choice of husband, avoiding her fate as a marriage pawn for England. This is a lesson that both Harper and Weir suggest the young Mary Boleyn took to heart. Second, a pubescent Mary Boleyn was seduced by the new French king, Francois I. Harper and Weir both suggest she was a lesser mistress of the king, used only for a few nights of entertainment. Historically, she was not recognized as one of his many official mistresses, and although in Harper's fiction, her status is well-known (and the reason she comes to Henry VIII's attention), Weir's biography suggests she may have only spent one night with the king and this may have been concealed for a long time.
Harper's psychological portrait of the young Mary's relationship with Francois is one of the strengths of the novel. Her relationship with him is rightfully portrayed as abuse, and Mary's father, Thomas Boleyn, is rightfully portrayed as a predator who whored out his young daughter in hopes of material gain. When, later, Mary comes to the attention of Henry VIII, she uses him to escape Francois. Although she again becomes a royal mistress, an older and wiser Mary understands the terms of the relationship between herself and the king, and does not mistake herself as more than a pawn in the royal court. Harper's Mary is miraculously non-stereotypical: she is no dumb blonde or naive girl in love, nor is she a jealous sister or embittered mother of a bastard. She suffers sexual and psychological abuse, but she learns from her mistakes, turns her life to her own advantage, and thrives. She manages both to protect her own children from the predation she suffered and to stand up to the father who began the pattern of predation that characterized her early life.
The huge success of Mary's life, I would agree with Harper, Weir, and Gregory, is that she marries for love and lives happily ever after. Both of these feats would have been remarkable for any (noble) woman of her time, but doubly so for the sister of a woman famous for being beheaded at her husband's behest. Unfortunately, Harper's characterization of William Stafford, the man with whom Mary eloped, severely disappointed me, especially in the first part of the novel. Stafford shows up in Mary's father's retinue in France, and Mary immediately despises him--because he's a huge jerk! He teases her as a young girl, and later deigns to warn her about her father and kings Francois and Henry in turn, although it's obvious that he has ulterior motives other than her best interests at heart. When she slaps him for a particularly presumptuous and offensive warning, he tells her, "I promise you that you will pay dearly someday for whatever slaps or scratches or sharp words you give me. You will pay, sweet Mary, but in a time and manner of my choosing" (116). When they are in a masque together (he is the Sheriff of Nottingham, she Maid Marian, and Henry VIII plays Robin Hood of course), this scene ensues behind the sets:
"Sweetheart, it pleases me to have you so close and my captive. It is my fondest fantasy."
She hated him for his mocking ways...She pushed out against him to free herself from his near embrace, but he did not budge and she felt his hard, flat stomach and muscular thighs press her back. (187)After this non-consensual scene, where he next kisses her as she says "No! No!," he tells her, "Now two men will possess you and neither really loves you, Mary Bullen. Think of me when you spread your sweet thighs for them!" (188).
I know this is all supposed to be sexy, but it's not. These Darcy-esque love stories where the guy proves how "good" he is by being a jerk who turns out to have correctly judged all the other jerks leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Especially for a story where the main character's triumph against abuse at the hands of several male characters is such a main focus, the fact that the male love interest differs little in attitude from the abusers stands out starkly. Stafford's character does improve later in the book, when she actually marries him, and he is an ally who supports her against Anne's abuse and helps her and her children away from the carnage at the end. However, this enormous flaw really diminished my enjoyment of the book.
I recommend The Last Boleyn to those who want more after The Other Boleyn Girl, or hunger for a different portrait of Mary, but I hope that no one considers this version of Stafford as a desirable hero. For a more egalitarian love story, Philippa Gregory's version is preferable.