Anya Seton




Date Reviewed:

February 3, 2012

atherine is a book that always seems to make it onto "best historical novels of all time" lists, such as this one or this one, even though it was first published way back in 1954. I picked up a used copy and read the whole book - all 640 pages in my paperback edition - in less than a week (I was on vacation, so had free time to read on the bus).

Katherine is the story of a common woman with uncommon beauty. The book opens with her arrival at the court of King Edward III, wearing her one plain dress, where she gawks at the royalty. Katherine's beauty soon catches the eye of one of the crude lusty knights, Sir Hugh Swynford, who attempts to rape her in the garden only for her to be rescued by the brother to the king, John the Duke of Lancaster. Sir Hugh vows that he will have Katherine one way or another, and rashly finds himself, a knight, marrying a penniless orphan like Katherine. But despite Hugh's clumsy and brutish character, he genuinely loves Katherine, he is just intimidated by her grace and beauty, while Hugh's only skills are on the battlefield. Katherine endures her marriage to Hugh, living in his crumbling castle on his poor lands - she bears Hugh a daughter (Blanchette) and a son (Thomas). But Katherine's heart belongs to the magnificent Duke of Lancanster. However, the Duke has eyes only for his beautiful wife, Blanche. Blanche is not only the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, she is also kind and clever and loved by all. Despite the vast differences in their status, Katherine and Blanche become great friends. And then the plague comes...

I assume that most of the details of this novel are invented, but there really did exist a Katherine who was mistress to the Duke of Lancaster, who scandalously bore him three sons even while he was married to the Princess of Castile. Late in life, Katherine ended up marrying the Duke, which thus legitimitized her children, with the unexpected result that the House of Lancaster rose to the throne with the crowning of Henry VII (Katherine's grandson). There was a family tree in the front of the book, and I refered to it often; I am not familar with English history and its many kings and queens.

I can't help but compare Katherine to Here Be Dragons, by Sharon Kay Penman. Both historical/romance books tell the story from a woman's point of view in medieval England, and thus battle scenes are not described, all the drama is based upon the woman's struggle to maintain her position and successfully raise her children. (The book Katherine is not devoid of danger and drama - there is an excellent description of the revolt of the peasants that resulted in a march on London, with subsequent looting/arson/mayhem.) But for some reason I found Here Be Dragons to be just an average tale, while I greatly enjoyed Katherine. Somehow, Seton successfully conveyed to me Katherine's noble character and determination that made her book such a good read. I see that Seton once was a prolific author, perhaps I should seek out some of her other old books.