Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl is a superb novel, particularly with respect to characterization. I may return to this novel in depth in the future, but today I simply want to lay out an unsurpassed example of girl game in fiction.
Anne Boleyn as portrayed here is a high-social-intelligence amoral Machiavellian manipulator. She has decided that she is going to marry Henry Percy, a powerful and wealthy English lord. Boleyn is alarmingly adept at manipulation. (It kind of makes one wonder about Philippa Gregory!) She’d defeat Scarlett O’Hara in some sort of “Who can get a certain man to propose to her?” Ultimate Grudge Match. O’Hara, while just as amoral pragmatic as Anne Boleyn, is a little too inclined to let her emotions run away with her (recall that she’s dizzyingly in love with Ashley Wilkes). Boleyn, in contrast, is remorselessly purposeful. She does nothing that’s not thought out.
Anne’s pursuit of Henry Percy begins in the chapter titled Spring 1523 (page 123 in my paperback copy). As told by the novel’s narrator, Anne’s sister Mary (with editing for brevity):
After that I watched Anne with more care. I saw how she played him. Having advanced through all the cold months of the New Year, now, with the coming of the sun, she suddenly retreated. And the more she withdrew from him the more he came on. When he came into a room she looked up and threw him a smile which went like an arrow to the center of the target. She filled her look with invitation, with desire. But then she looked away and she would not look at him again for the whole of the visit.
It was clear that he only had eyes for Anne and she walked past him, danced with anyone but him, returned his poems. She went into the most unswerving of retreats, having been unswervingly in advance, and the young man did not begin to know what he could do to recapture her.
He came to me. “Mistress Carey, have I offended your sister in some way?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Skipping ahead: Eventually Percy finds Anne in the gardens of the palace and asks her to walk with him. Here I feel the sting of the omissions I’ve had to inflict for brevity. The omissions make this whole episode of Anne ensnaring Henry seem more direct, more blunt, than it is in the novel. In the novel Boleyn masterfully starts the thing at a simmer and brings it to a boil, and I’m not really conveying the smoothness of it here. But let’s continue. From here on the only two people present are Henry and Anne; the narrator is relating what follows as Anne tells it to her later.
He led her away from the bowling green, down the winding path that led to a seat beneath a yew tree.
“I have to know why you have grown so cold to me.”
For a moment she hesitated, then turned a face to him which was grave and lovely.
“I did not mean to be cold,” she said slowly. “I meant to be careful.”
“Why?” he whispered.
She looked down the garden to the river. “I thought it better for me, perhaps better for us both,” she said quietly. “We might become too close in friendship for my comfort.”
“I would never cause you a moment’s uneasiness,” he assured her.
She turned her dark luminous eyes on him. “Could you promise that no one would ever say that we were in love?”
Mutely, he shook his head. Of course he could not promise what a scandal-mad court might or might not say.
“Could you promise that we would never fall in love?”
“Of course I love you, Mistress Anne,” he said. “In the courtly way. In the polite way.”
She smiled as if she were pleased to hear it. “I know it is nothing more than a May game. For me, also. But it is a dangerous game when played between a handsome man and a maid, when there are many people very quick to say that we are perfectly matched.”
“Do they say that?”
“When they see us dance. When they see how you look at me. When they see how I smile at you.”
“What else do they say?” He was quite entranced by this portrait.
“They say that you love me. They say that I love you. They say that we have both been head over heels in love while we thought we were doing nothing but playing.”
“My God,” he said at the revelation. “My God, it is so!”
“Oh my lord! What are you saying?”
“I am saying that I have been a fool. I have been in love with you for months and all the time I thought I was amusing myself and you were teasing me, and that it all meant nothing.”
Her gaze warmed him. “It was not nothing to me,” she whispered.
Her dark eyes held him, the boy was transfixed. “Anne,” he whispered. “My love.”
Her lips curved into a kissable, irresistible smile. “Henry,” she breathed. “My Henry.”
He took a small step toward her, put his hands on her tightly laced waist. He drew her close to him and his mouth found hers for their first kiss.
“Oh, say it,” Anne whispered. “Say it now, this moment, say it, Henry.”
“Marry me,” he said.
Yikes! That’s terrifyingly good girl game. It is even better in the novel, not only because there are no omissions, but because by the time we get to this point Anne Boleyn has been established as the most purposeful and competent manipulator in a court full of purposeful and competent manipulators. One should also keep in mind that at this time, women were constantly plotting to make men marry them, and men were aware of this and constantly careful to avoid being tricked into a match they didn’t want. None of that hinders Gregory’s Anne Boleyn. It’s all just grist for her high-functioning, Machiavellian mill.
One’s first thought is, Whew! I’m glad I’ve never met a woman like that!
One’s second, chilling, thought is, What makes you think you haven’t?
Of course, we all have encountered people (men and women) like this. Statistics guarantees it. But most of them manage to cloak themselves most of the time, devoting a significant fraction of their manipulative social intelligence to hiding their manipulative social intelligence.
I once read, in an article about sharks,
“Beach swimmers would probably find it unnerving if they knew how often sharks cruise underneath them while they swim.”
What Lies Beneath indeed.
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