Seton, A., & Gregory, P. (2004). Katherine a novel. Chicago, Ill:Chicago Review Press. 9781556525322
Katherine tells the story of actual Katherine Swynford (neé de Roet), a pivotal player in the history of English royalty. In the Fourteenth Century, lady in-waiting to Queen Philippa, Philippa de Roet sends for her younger sister, Katherine. Katherine de Roet has been living at a small, country convent. With the prioress, Katherine makes the journey to London. Innocent Katherine takes the London court by storm with her beauty. She comes to the attention of rough knight, Hugh Swynford, and John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and fourth son of the king and Blanche, the Duchess of Lancaster. Katherine more than reluctantly marries Swynford but the Lancasters do not forget Katherine. In a few years, while John of Gaunt and Swynford are dealing with the 100 Years War, a plague claims many victims including Blanche of Lancaster. However, Katherine eases Blanche’s suffering and finds a priest to administer the Duchess’s last rites. In grief, John of Gaunt takes notice of the lovely Katherine and gives her her own coat of arms, bearing three wheels which signify St. Catherine and Katherine’s maiden name, de Roet. From there, the relationship escalates into an affair which has stunning and long lasting effects on not only their contemporaries but their descendants as it precipitates the Wars of the Roses.
This particular work of historical fiction is remarkable in the amount of research done on an era long past in order to make the novel seem authentic. Having published this in the 1950s, Anya Seton had to research. While most of the narrative takes place in England, Katherine and other characters are Flemish and speak French. Seton’s characters sometimes converse in an older form of French. In a note preceding the novel, Seton explained that she used the names of people she saw in registers. Also, most of the characters are real: Katherine, John of Gaunt, Katherine’s brother in-law Geoffrey Chaucer, John Wycliffe, etc. Seton provides much detail of Medieval English life. With this, the reader experiences the difficulty of survival, particularly of women such as Katherine.
My mom remembered reading this book as a teenager and this spurred her interest in both English history and literature. When I read it, I was fascinated by the book and some of the people who made cameos. The mention of John Wycliffe has spurred quite a bit of amateur research on my part. In reading the 2004 version, I was able to read a foreword by Philippa Gregory (writer, The Other Boleyn Sister). Like Gregory, I think Seton set the tone for the historical novel. Seton did her homework and her creation was a labor of love. Gregory also points out how Seton subscribed to Freudian concepts and had a 1950s mindset. Although I agree with this as well, I think Katherine is an excellent work.
I would recommend Katherine to the female historical fiction audience. It is a bit romantic. Also, this would be a great introduction to some nonfiction work on English history. The world’s interest in Katherine Swynford has led to many websites dedicated to her. Readers may catch the craze. Also, the reader must not be opposed to long novels; Katherine is over 500 pages.
Four out of Five Pearls