The Boleyn bride of the title is Elizabeth Howard Boleyn, mother of George, Mary, and Anne Boleyn. My entire previous knowledge of her life is basically me noting that the Boleyn siblings got their family prestige and connections through their mother, and their wealth through their father. Also that Anne Boleyn (Wife #2, Beheaded) and Catherine Howard (Wife #5, beheaded) were cousins through the Howards, so I was interested in learning more.
The book didn’t need any plothooks for me, because Tudor, but the story is narrated by a regretful Elizabeth in an extended flashback after Anne and George’s deaths. We see a young, spoiled aristocrat married off to the son of wealthy shopkeepers. Elizabeth’s in-laws may be styling themselves Boleyns now, but they’ll always be the new-money Bullens to her.
Elizabeth is a bizarrely likeable character, throughout all her hardships. We see her loyalty to Queen Catherine, even as her Boleyn family enjoy the benefits of Henry’s affairs with her daughters. She carries on plenty of affairs herself, one long-running romance and loads of other encounters, and basically shrugs and says that there’s no question of the paternity of her children and that she’s not publicly embarrassing her husband, bring on the young men! She’s also vain, but in an oddly sensible way, showing awareness that her value is her face and figure.
I’m already familiar with George, Mary, and Anne from all the other Tudor fiction I’ve read, but I enjoyed Purdy’s versions of these characters. Mary Boleyn is usually characterized as a dull-witted pawn for the power hungry Boleyns, or an immoral hedonist. But here, Mary is shown as a golden little girl who mimics her parents’ affairs, but finally finds love in a lowborn match and a removal from court.
The Anne / George incest theme always gives me the creeps in Tudor novels, and I felt like Elizabeth shared my squick, jumping to insist that nothing happened! Not any of those times they spent the night together alone, nope, totally not, because that would be gross.
The story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is a familiar one to me, but Purdy’s unique and oddly sympathetic Elizabeth Boleyn is a new character and a new twist.
The Boleyn Bride will be released by Kensington Books on February 25, 2014. This review is based on an eARC from the publisher. (Thank you!) Opinions are my own and free copies have never stopped me from snarking about a bad book before.