Saturday, 27 March 2010

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)


“Well, if it isn't the Boleyn Whores. Two former ladies of mine. Hiding in shadows.”
- Queen Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

(I was flattered to be asked to write a review of this movie by Elena Maria Vidal. There are some spoilers in this review, but given that it's about the Tudors, I don't think it will come as too much of a shock to anyone!)

In 2008, my housemate Beth returned to our house in Oxford late one evening from a trip to see the new movie, The Other Boleyn Girl. I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to see it, and wasn’t even sure I was going to – I’d read the book and that was traumatic enough. I could still remember the perfectly-arched eyebrow of savage incredulity which my high school friend Patricia reserved for anyone who suggested she read it... Anyway, Beth knocked on my bedroom door and I opened expecting to see her with her customary can of hairspray in her hands, maniacally spraying all around her. (It was the only way we had figured out how to repel the nuclear-sized spiders which seemed to inexplicably infest our college house.) As I opened the door, I was greeted by a shell-shocked Beth. Naturally, I assumed that we were once again under siege from Arachneus, King of the Spiders, and his eight-legged army and I quickly reached for my deodorant. This time, however, I was wrong. “Oh it’s bad...," she said, "The Other Boleyn Girl... it’s so, so bad... it’s.... it’s bad, Gareth. It’s just really bad. I can't even... I'm never getting those two hours back.”

A breathlessly gleeful phone-call from my friend Emerald a few days later confirmed Beth's review: “Gaz, you’ve got to get down to the nearest cinema and see it immediately. It’s the worst thing in the history of cinema! It’s the most gloriously stupid thing you’ll ever see! I mean, it’s just... no, I mean, oh my god, you have got to see it!” When I did go to see it, with another friend, Emily, it was reassuringly every bit as ghastly as I had been promised. Half-way through, Emily leant over to me and whispered, both confused and contemptuous: “Is this a joke?”

Sadly, Emily, no, it wasn’t. Or, at least, it wasn’t an intentional one.

The Other Boleyn Girl is a loose adaptation of the novel by Philippa Gregory, which is itself (very) loosely based on the life of Anne Boleyn’s sister, the lesser-known Mary Boleyn (?1502 - 1542). Like Anne, Mary was educated in France before returning to England in late adolescence, whereupon she briefly became the mistress of King Henry VIII. At an unknown point, the monarch tired of her and sometime after that (it may have been as long as three years) made his fateful attempt to seduce her younger sister. Unlike Mary, Anne demanded marriage and she got the prize, but ended up paying for it with her life. Mary, in the meantime, had run off with a commoner and lived happily ever after. From these facts, Gregory weaved an execrable bodice-ripper of a book and from said romance novel, Peter Morgan and Justin Chadwick spun an excruciatingly bad movie.

It requires a certain talent to take the story of the Boleyn sisters’ tragic lives and make them boring but, somehow, The Other Boleyn Girl manages it – in fact, that isn't fair. It doesn’t just manage it, it excels at it. The end result of a plodding, turgid narrative becomes even more baffling when you think about the brilliant cast that was assembled for the movie – Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Eric Bana, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jim Sturgess, David Morrissey, Juno Temple and Eddie Redmayne. All of them brilliant in other productions, so how exactly did Paramount end-up make something so garishly and insultingly stupid? I don’t know, all I do know is that they did.

To give you a brief, potted storyline of the movie itself – Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson) is the youngest daughter of a country squire, Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) and his aristocratic wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). Mary has recently been married to another country squire, Sir William Carey (Benedict Cumberbatch), when the King of England (Eric Bana) makes a visit to their family home. Mary’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), has heard rumours that the King’s marriage to Queen Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent) is in difficulties, and he forms a plan to make Mary’s unmarried sister, Anne (Natalie Portman), the King's new mistress. However, the King doesn’t take a shine to Anne, but to Mary instead. Mary is pressured by her family into sleeping with the King, but, once she does, she quickly falls in love with him - because she sees the man behind the Crown, or some other saccharin drivel along those lines. Anne, in the meantime, seduces another woman’s fiancĂ© (Oliver Coleman) and elopes with him, without her family’s permission. (Yes, that’s right, Anne Boleyn had a secret marriage that we didn’t know about. No biggy. After all, how important in the grand scheme of things was the institution of marriage in Anne Boleyn's life?) When she finds out about this naughty behaviour, Mary informs her parents, who banish Anne to France for several months and pretend the marriage never happened. (Which is apparently delightfully easy for them do. Again, as anyone who knows the period well will testify, the Catholic Church was only too happy to allow people to ignore marriages they'd rather not have entered into in the first place. Maybe if Henry VIII had just pretended he couldn't see Katherine of Aragon then the whole nasty business of the Reformation could have been avoided entirely.) Anyway, Mary has by this stage been knocked-up by her royal lover and promptly produces a royal bastard. However, back from France with a now permanent sneer that we are led to believe equates with sex appeal, Anne is out to get revenge on her pregnant sister. She does this by seducing the King. He begs her to sleep with him, but she refuses. Playing hard to get, she finally agrees to love him if he will promise never to see Mary again. This he does outside the door of Mary's bedroom, as she gives birth to his son. Literally, right outside the door. Mary is holding the baby, looking doe-eyed and loving; apparently in 1526, childbirth will leave you looking quite tired, but thankfully it won't mess-up your hair. Henry agrees to Anne's condition, leaving Mary looking upset, but still immaculately coiffed. Now, the whole earth-shattering process of the Great Divorce and the impending Break with Rome begins. The movie deals with it in about 20 seconds. More importantly, Mary has started flirting with a young courtier, (Eddie Redmayne), who is disgusted by the way her family treats her. (At this point we’re led to assume her first husband has died, although it’s never mentioned. Also, note to self: people who like the countryside = good. Marry them immediately.) King Henry, in the meantime, bored of Anne’s refusal to sleep with him, and taunted about his weakness by his soon-to-be ex-wife Katherine, savagely rapes Anne one afternoon. (As you do.) Luckily, neither of them break a sweat, although Anne does end up pregnant and so their marriage is rushed ahead (by which point, we’re also to understand that the English Reformation has happened. England's now Protestant and Anne's wearing dresses with a bit more room around the middle.) Anne gives birth to a daughter and the King takes a mistress. Anne suffers a nervous breakdown and goes eight kinds of crazy. (Not quite Jack Nicholson in the Shining-crazy, more Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.) Then, she has a miscarriage, which seems to have caused her some mild discomfort. Determined to fall pregnant again before the King can realise she’s barren, she begs her brother George (Jim Sturgess) to impregnate her – half an hour after the miscarriage. (Biology, anyone?) At the last minute, George can’t go through with it; however, the initial seduction has been witnessed by George’s jealous wife (Juno Temple), who informs the King. Anne is arrested and executed, as is George. Both go to their deaths sobbing like infants. (For an account of the execution of the real George Boleyn elsewhere on this blog read here. And for an account of the real Anne's death, read here.) Mary takes Anne’s 3 year-old daughter, the future Elizabeth I, to live with her and her new husband in the countryside - the King of England apparently having no qualms about his youngest daughter being reared in the countryside by a total non-entity and a former strumpet.

When I was asked by a friend which bits were true and which weren’t, I started to make an extensive list of everything I could remember that was wrong in the movie, before suddenly boiling it down into the neat sentence of: “All of it: it’s actually all wrong.” And that’s a sentence I stand by after watching the film again. No matter what criticism The Tudors may have received for its inaccuracies, the Showtime series seems like a History Channel documentary compared to this movie. Anyone vaguely acquainted with the Tudor period is likely to require smelling salts thanks to The Other Boleyn Girl’s dozens of historical inaccuracies, all of which are particularly inexcusable, because unlike other productions, The Other Boleyn Girl’s inaccuracies don’t help the story - they hinder it. So, despite having the Oscar-nominated talent of scriptwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland), The Other Boleyn Girl is a shockingly bad script riddled with clichĂ©s, plot-holes and glaring improbabilities. None of the characters have any nuances to them at all. They don't age, they don't change, they don't evolve – the Duke of Norfolk’s a monotone mafioso, Henry VIII is brooding, Mary is nice, Thomas Boleyn is spineless, Katherine of Aragon is a shrill, smug bully, Elizabeth Boleyn is a woman ahead of her time and Anne is a scheming, graceless, vulgar, sociopathic trollop. Anne, in fact, emerges as a cross between the Wicked Witch of the West and Bette Davis in Whatever happened to Baby Jane?; she spends the entire movie gleefully ruining the lives of everyone around her and embarking on an apparent quest to displace Lucifer as all-round bad guy of the universe. Just to make sure everyone realises how bad Anne really is, Mary is set up as her opposite: a doe-eyed, warm-hearted secular saint. (I stress the “secular” because Christianity doesn’t seem to have any impact on these people’s lives whatsoever, in what was probably one of the most religiously-charged periods in human history.)

To give credit where it is due, Natalie Portman does her best with the pantomime villainess of Anne and, when she’s allowed to, she does manage to flesh out a fairly two-dimensional character. She’s certainly far stronger on screen than Scarlett Johansson is as Mary, but that may be something to do with how unspeakably boring the latter’s character is. Eric Bana is almost laughably wooden as Henry VIII and the superb Kristin Scott-Thomas is wasted as the Boleyn matriarch, Lady Elizabeth. Jim Sturgess offers a fine, if fleeting, performance as the girls' luckless gay brother, George, as does Juno Temple as his jealous wife, Jane.

The film’s only saving graces are the occasionally watchable performances from Jim Sturgess, Juno Temple and Kristin Scott-Thomas and Sandy Powell’s beautiful costumes. However, you know it’s been a bad experience when you’re watching the Queen of England’s public execution and you console yourself with the fact that she, at least, didn’t have to live and sit through this movie. With that last point, I'm being flippant, but in the final evaluation there really is nothing in this movie to interest anyone attracted to this period in history and it might have been better for all concerned if the producers had changed the names of all the characters and had the honesty to admit it for what it was - total fiction. Even then, however, I don't think it would have saved The Other Boleyn Girl from being what my flatmate so rightly hailed it as - just a very bad movie.

33 comments:

  1. Hahaha, Brilliant review! I have to say that watching this film was one of the most painful experiences of my whole life. I have no idea where they were coming from, or Gregory to be honest! I can't actually believe that Gregory studied at my University; however I am doing my dissertation on Anne's religion and downfall… so fingers crossed that I can make some amends for Gregory's seriously bad behavior!

    Owen x

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  2. IT WAS SO BAD! Big mistake watching that the term I studied the Reformation! Similar to watching the Da Vinci Code the term I did Church History. TOBG was nearly as bad as Avatar. Review that next. 3 more hours I'll never get back. James Cameron is a time thief!

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  3. Thanks, Owen. Good luck with the thesis! It sounds like a great topic.

    Beth, I am NOT sitting through Avatar. I don't want to see weird blue sex mutants clambering all over anti-imperalist weird dragons for three hours. At least you got a nap during it!

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  4. True. Wouldn't say I recommend falling asleep during it though. A) I seem to have missed the plot of Avatar and can only assume that it was crammed into the 30 mins I slept through and B) Waking up in 3D glasses having forgotten that you are wearing them and seeing overgrown smurfs flying dragonflies towards you is a truly harrowing experience. xx

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  5. I don't recall caring all that much either way for the film, but the review was scathingly brilliant. If I didn't know it was you that wrote it, I would still know that it was you.

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  6. Thank you for that. I read the book, and refused to see the movie (or to read any other of the author's books). Secular saint indeed! Maybe my brain was so smothered in goo that I kept seeing the same words over again, but as I remember, whenever Mary had to make a decision, in which one way was right and one way was wrong, she'd produce her mantra: "But I was a Howard, I was a Boleyn..." and choose the wrong. And the author wants me to sympathize and applaud?

    Sounds very familiar, though. "I know it is wrong to support (fill in the blank), but I am for peace and I am for social justice, and so I will..."

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  7. I adore this review, particularly:


    “(I stress the “secular” because Christianity doesn’t seem to have any impact on these people’s lives whatsoever, in what was probably one of the most religiously-charged periods in human history.)”


    Superb blog; I’m glad I discovered it!

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  8. Thanks Little Miss Sunnydale! Very glad you like it.

    Wendy, I agree - the book, like the movie, is frustrating, populated by unsympathetic characters and makes little sense!

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  9. You actually had me laughing out loud because you are spot on with this review and have written it in a wonderfully entertaining way.

    So many people think that Anne Boleyn was a bi*** and Mary Boleyn some kind of saint because of the book and the film and it hasn't been helped by Gregory's assertion (in her notes) that Anne Boleyn was guilty of at least one murder..hmmm..

    Gregory admits to hating Anne Boleyn and that definitely shows through but what is so sad is that people believe this novel/film to be the true story. I love that many people have come to know Anne's true story by reading this novel and then researching Anne to find out more but I hate that it makes Anne out to be a monster.

    "However, you know it’s been a bad experience when you’re watching the Queen of England’s public execution and you console yourself with the fact that she, at least, didn’t have to live and sit through this movie."

    That was the bit that made me laugh out loud. Guess you hated it!!

    Anyway, I'm so glad that Matterhorn (Cross of Laeken) told me about your blog, good luck with it.

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  10. So glad you like it Claire. I admit I'm at a loss as to why Miss Gregory has taken such an unfathomably visceral hatred of Anne Boleyn and it really can only be described as that way. Still, the sheer melodramatic campness and over-the-top venom with which Anne is drawn by her actually ends up undermining her credibility - a bit like a 16th century version of "Mommie Dearest," really.

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  11. I've never understood it either because surely as a writer Anne is the perfect protagonist. I know TOBG has caused many people to actually go off and learn more about Anne but if people ask me for an Anne Boleyn fiction recommendation I'd recommend Jean Plaidy and Robin Maxwell over TOBG.

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  12. Claire, I agree completely. Mary Boleyn too, in a different way, is a fantastic character for a fiction writer, but has yet to be properly dramatised. It just seemed so bizarre that she felt the need to radically alter the two sisters' personalities (again, in very different ways.)

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  13. Oh my Goodness, this film was awful. I watched it with a friend who knew next to nothing about Tudor history, and so about every 30 seconds I had to leen to her saying "NO! That did NOT happen! DISREGARD THE ENTIRE SCENE!" Lest she come to the conclusion that Anne Boleyn tried to comit incest, Katherine of Aragon is a bully who magically disappeared sometime around 1530,Mary Boleyn was a Saint, Elizabeth Boleyn was the 16th C. Girl Power incarnate, and the Henry VIII was a rapist. I emean, he was a great number of terrible things, but a rapist was not one of them. Though he did let Thomas Culpepper off when he raped a woman and murdered her husband (Though not when he slept with his trophy wife...)

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  14. I find it ironic that Gregory makes sluts and liars out of awesome and amazing women of the period (e.g. Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon -WTF was up with The Constant Princess? Did she really think it was plausible that KOA would dress up as a Harem girl to seduce Arthur?!) but then Mary Boleyn, the only one who actually DID have an affair and was a mistress - is a heavenly Sainted angel whom we should all love and adore.

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  15. I just found your blog through Claire and The Anne Bolyen Files. All of your blogs are highly informative but this one had me laughing at my desk with my coworkers wondering what's wrong with me! My favorite line was "...a somehow-unmarried Anne returns to England, with some fabulous new clothes, a permanent sneer that we're led to believe equates with sex appeal.." I said almost the exact same thing to my daughter when we suffered through the movie! Thank you for your wonderful blogs!!

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  16. Thank you so much, Marie - I'm very glad you enjoyed them... although, of course, I'm sad for anyone who had to sit through TOBG!

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  17. This is a great, well thought-out review, which is more than I can say for "The Other Boleyn Girl." In fact, I like your thinking, and wish to subscribe to your newsletter. I dragged my friends to "The Other Boleyn Girl," and kept whispering, "That never happened." And then I had to explain to my friends afterwards what did happen and what didn't. I should have just told them none of it did. Now can I claim that "The Other Boleyn Girl" never happened, too? The world would make much more sense that way.

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  18. I enjoyed your review so much more than the movie itself. Now at least I feel like I have gained something from the horror that was TOBG. You put into words so many of the things that I felt when I watched it and just shook my head in disbelief. I loved your comment about how it made The Tudors look like a History Channel documentary! What a waste to take one of the most fascinating periods in history and a passionate royal love story and then change everything around so that it's boring. Even "bad" history can be fun, but that lesson was lost on the makers of TOBG. The only good thing I can say about it is at least the costumes were accurate.

    Now I'm going to have to read your posts for the month of May about Anne Boleyn. Reading about her again almost makes me miss graduate school, except for being broke all of the time.

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  19. When I was a little girl, I had a set of paper dolls. They were supposed to be princesses and had the most beautiful ball gowns. I played with them by the hour. The only redeeming quality of TOBG was that it brought back memories of the hours I spent with flat, cardboard characters with pretty dresses. It truly was a very bad movie. Pretty dresses, though.

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  20. I have to say here, TOBG had an excellent effect on me. I was doing my hair late one evening, as it were, and was watching this on my Netflix (yes it went to Netflix that fast). Slowly, as I was fixing my hair, I had to circle around in horror at what was happening to this story. Keep in mind, at this point, I knew NOTHING about Tudor history, or only vague things that Americans purport to know. I WAS OVER IT.

    So I picked up Gregory's book, and relatively enjoyed it because I knew little about the story. In retrospect, that is scary. But, it did have one good effect. The movie, and the book, propelled me into what is going to be a lifelong love of history, and especially history in the Tudor period. Since that evening 2 years ago, I've read over 50 books pertaining to any type of English or Welsh history I can get my hands on. I have read biographies, fictions, listened to podcasts, and am even planning a trip to England finally to pay my respects to Anne Boleyn's grave, out of my own fascination for her.

    So, TOBG sucked a big one. So did that book. But it did inspire thirst to find the truth, and to become a mini scholar in my own right.

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  21. Oh my god, you are so right on about this movie!! I just watched it for the second time two days ago, after having watched it for the first time back when it came out. The first time I had just finished reading the book and had actually really enjoyed it. Even though the story was very different from what actually happened. It did manage to convey the fact that Anne Boleyn must have been a very impressive woman, to say the least. Anyhow, when I saw the movie then, I already thought it sucked. Still, I decided to watch it again two days ago to give it a second chance since I'm totally obsessed with Anne Boleyn. Everything you say about the movie is completely true. I laughed out loud while reading your review. That was the worst movie I have ever seen. It was so weird and rushed. You never saw Anne and Henry ever being in love. He just seemed like this big sheepish looking, kind of midlife crisis having, guy. Who was chasing her because...He likes bossy bitchy women? Cause that's all she's giving him.
    Everything was just wrong about it and I just wanted to thank u for totally agreeing and making a hilarious review about it. Also, I really like your writing. It's very entertaining.
    I do think there is one positive thing to it though. I think the clothing was much more realistic than what you see in the show 'The Tudors'.Which I loved all down to the last episode till that ridiculous scene where Anne comes back. Just to see her daughter! So dull. I would think she would have just a little bit more to say.. And the living daughter is standing next to the dead mother. The whole thing just didnt make any sense to me.

    O.k now I'm just getting carried away :)



    Greetz

    from Amsterdam

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  22. Brilliant review! May I just say, in defense of Gregory, when I interviewed her last year, and asked about the film, she paused, hesitated, and did her very best to indicate how little control she had over the film, without actually condemming the production. Although the book has some troubling moments (one of the most troubling to me being the assumption Gregory made that "most of us" had never heard of Mary Boleyn) it is so far superiour to the film, that one cannot even believe that the book and the film came from the same source.

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  23. This is a marvelous review. I read it aloud to my two teenagers (both of whom we have been teaching real history to for some years) and they were very amused. The eldest who has don't some acting in school plays was laughing out loud at some of your comments on the characterization and "acting".

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  24. What murder does Gregory assert that Anne was certainly guilty of?? Who???

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  25. Oh my. Don't know whether to laugh or cry. I definitely laughed during the review but thinking about it made me a bit sad for the reason that thanks to this film there are so many people out there with a completely warped understanding of the whole story (the real version). Like it or not, many people won't bother to do research after seeing a Hollywood movie that pretends to be historical and thus there are many roaming around believing this sort of bullshit (can't really think of a milder word).

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  26. Agree with your review 100%. Nuff said! God, I can't stand that Gregory woman. How she can let such horribly obvious bias permeate all her novels is beyond me!

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  27. Didn't anyone ever teach "Pillipa" that when one takes the Queene's pence, one does the Queene's work? Obviously an ill-mannered, bore of a woman and not so hot a writer, either.

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  28. I have to agree...I didn't know much about Tudor history before I read the book, but after reading up on it, the movie eh. But, with beautiful costumes and my usual suspension of disbelief for "historical" films, it was doable. At least I didn't have to pay for it.

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  29. This is exactly how I felt about the movie--summed up very nicely, I might add. It was horribly, unbelievably bad, even worse than the book--which is saying something.

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  30. both book and movie were horrible.. thats enough said!

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  31. Can't thank you enough for saving so many of us from any & all possible temptation to ever get near this movie. (Speaking for *myself*, I read ONE Gregory novel (Catherine of Aragon), which permanently put me off her, so, I'm safe. But, THINK OF THE CHILDREN...!)

    Thank you!

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  32. Can't thank you enough for saving so many of us from any & all possible temptation to ever get near this movie. (Speaking for *myself*, I read ONE Gregory novel (Catherine of Aragon), which permanently put me off her, so, I'm safe. But, THINK OF THE CHILDREN...!)

    Thank you!

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  33. Well- I'm glad I'm not the only person who isn't exactly a Philippa Gregory fan. To be honest I haven't read her as I was put off by a seeming implication that the treatment of Mary Boleyn's affair with Henry VIII was new whereas it's been covered before ["The Concubine" by Norah Lofts was a novel about Anne Boleyn I read and liked years ago and Mary featured in that]. Don't have a degree myself but like to think I'm reasonably intelligent. I sat through five minutes of "The White Queen" on TV before I turned it over though some critics indicate it is good for a laugh [concrete steps]. Your blog has given me a laugh on a grey morning.

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