Katherine, by Anya Seton

Katherine, by Anya Seton

Katherine, first published in 1954, is the story of Katherine Swynford, mistress and then wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. It takes place in England in the 1300s. Since I don’t know much British history, I looked up these two names. Katherine and John are ancestors to King Henry VII and to the current royal family. Katherine was, like many of Anya Seton’s novels, a bestseller when it was first published, and is still a well-known historical novel.

Anya Seton begins her “Author’s Note” by noting that “it has throughout been my anxious endeavor to use nothing but historical fact when these facts are known.” She apparently did a great deal of research to dig up as many facts as she could. Nevertheless, very little is known about Katherine, and nothing has come down to us about her emotional life. That’s what this novel focuses on, so Seton had to do a lot of imagining.

The novel begins when 15-year-old Katherine, an orphan ward of the queen, is leaving the convent at which she has spent five years to return to the royal court, where she hopes the queen will arrange her marriage. Although she has visions of handsome squires, she ends up being forced to marry an ugly knight, Hugh Swynford, who tried to rape her. The Duke of Lancaster rescues her from the attempted rape—this is the first time they meet—and arranges her marriage. The people at court, including Katherine’s sister Philippa, are amazed at Katherine’s good fortune that a landed knight would desire to marry a penniless orphan.

Katherine accepts her lot without complaint. But she is already in love with the Duke. Since we know that the two will get together, the main question is: how does it happen, and what are the consequences? Both are married, and Katherine, having been raised in a convent, seems extremely devout. She tries her best to be a good wife and manager of her husband’s bleak farm.

Seton uses an omniscient point of view to tell her story. Although much of the novel is told through Katherine’s eyes, Seton also dips into the heads of the Duke, his wife, Katherine’s sister and the sister’s husband (who happens to be Geoffrey Chaucer), and any number of other minor characters, from friars to lords to servants. Readers thus get a well-rounded picture of life in 14th century England. Seton manages to convey the historical significance of the time period (such as the commoners’ uprising against heavy taxation due to the Hundred Years’ War) without bogging down Katherine’s story.

I most enjoyed the sections told through Katherine’s point of view. Even though women were expected to be subservient, Katherine has important work to do, and she makes some of her own decisions, especially as the novel progresses. Although the novel is long, it doesn’t sag. The characters are well-drawn, and the story is full of action and intrigue. Towards the end, the novel becomes even more dramatic, building to a poignant resolution.

The author’s image at the top is from her biography, Anya Seton: A Writing Life.

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