Katherine by Anya Seton
Historical Fiction, Originally published 1954
Challenges: Historical Fiction Reading Challenge ’08
Read April-May 2008
Recommended to: Anyone interested in reading about the Plantagenets and the great love affair between the Duke John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford.
From the Cover:
This classic novel tells the most romantic love story in British history – the true love tale of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the ancestors of much of the British royal family. It is set in the vibrant 14th-century England of Chaucer, when magnificent pageantry was confronted by the Black Death, when knights went to battle in expensive foreign wars while peasants struggled to survive, and when the magnificent but despotic
Plantagenets – Edward III, the Black Prince, and Richard II – ruled over the court rotten with intrigue. In this era of danger and passion, John of Gaunt, the king’s son and the proudest of the Plantagenets, fought for power and fell desperately in love with the already married Katherine. Their well-documented romance persisted through decades of war, adultery, murder, loneliness, and redemption.
Katherine is a young girl fresh from the convent when she first meets the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. She arrives at the Queen’s castle to visit her sister Phillipa, one of the women caring for the Queen and later married to Geoffrey Chaucer. After a few days of being at the castle, Katherine is accosted by one of the Duke’s knights, Sir Hugh Swynford. Since Katherine is poor with only her sister, the Duke and his wife, Lady Blanche, think it a good idea for Katherine to marry the knight. He has a great estate and this way he gets Katherine and she will become part of society. But Katherine does not love Hugh and she struggles to become the lady of his manor Kettlethorpe. One day the Duke shows up to see Katherine and thus begins their friendship and ultimately a life-long love affair. Katherine soon settles into a life of considerable luxury with the Duke, having four illegitimate children with him. But life with the Duke is not without its consequences and her children as well as her reputation are often the sacrifices she makes to stay with him.
From arriving from the nunnery in the beginning of the novel to pilgrimaging alone barefoot, Katherine grows more self-assured as time passes. She becomes confident and discovers she contains great power over those around her. Katherine’s position in the Duke’s life was widely considered to be scandalous but he ultimately proves to both Katherine and his people the meaning of true love.
The Plantagenets are a new subject for me. I love history and I’ve read reviews that this is one of the best written historical novels. However, this was a hard book for me to finish for some reason. The last 150 pages or so I just had to keep reminding myself only 100 pages to go. It seems that about 3/4 the way in, the language just becomes too much. In between the time where Katherine is officially the Duke’s mistress and is living comfortably at the Savoy while the Duke is away for battle and then with his wife the Duchess Costanza, the book just dragged on. However, I’m certainly glad I didn’t put the book away for good because the last five chapters or so were just excellent!
I’m interested in reading the upcoming nonfiction (and much shorter) account by Alison Weir entitled Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess to compare what was Seton’s fact from fiction.