Saturday, August 7, 2010

Katherine by Anya Seton

Title: Katherine
Author: Anya Seton
Publisher: Chicago Review Press (2004), originally published in 1954

Katherine is historical fiction based on the life of Katherine de Roet and her relationship with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster in 14th century England. This book is beautifully done and well-researched by Anya Seton. And I'd be lying if I didn't say one of its most appealing aspects is that it is a true life fairy tale of love. This is no everything-smells-like-roses fairy tale, being very true to the realities and obligations of 14th century daily life - for royalty and commoners alike - but the true and enduring love between Katherine and John is, as they say, stranger than fiction. Ok, well, maybe just sweeter than fiction. 

Seton does justice to the period and the reader is rarely drawn out of the world she has created, which can often happen if a historical novel is overly influenced by the author or current societal mores. In fact, the only aspect of this novel that often seemed unrealistic to me was the use of sexual "morality" to represent purity or greediness of character. Thankfully, this was a small portion of the overall story and so did not take much away from the book.

Katherine de Roet was the daughter of a man who was knighted on the field and so was not high in the hierarchy of English nobility. She came to the notice of the richest man in England (save the King), the Duke of Lancaster, through her marriage to a landed knight who was the duke’s liegeman. After her husband’s death (or before depending on whose history you follow), Katherine began a long relationship with the duke. Even during the duke's second marriage to a Castilian heiress, Katherine was recognized as the woman closest to him in all things… well, except wedded vows.

There is not much written history regarding Katherine outside of official records of monies and property. And it is obvious that Seton takes some license with various events surrounding Katherine. However, one never feels like these detract from the truths that can be known about her. Where Seton had to fill in holes the events seem as likely to be true as any other educated guess. And this is what makes the story a compelling read from beginning to end. The undisputed history fits seamlessly with the history that can’t be confirmed making for an enjoyable read.

And speaking of the undisputed history, it's pretty interesting. The Peasant's Revolt occurred during this time and the Savoy Palace was fired (and hot damn that gets to me every time! it seems like it would have been such a beautiful building! the oppressed clearly had no thought to future museums, etc... course I can't really blame them), Geoffrey Chaucer was part of the duke's retinue and the Hundred Years' War was on with France. Seton keeps Katherine as the central focus of the story (see title) but all these events inevitably touch her life.

Anyone with an interest in historical novels will enjoy this but I can’t deny that it's the unbelievable but documented love affair that keeps me coming back to the story for additional reads.

rating: 4 of 5 stars


  1. I've heard of this book before but I've not seen it on store or library shelves, darn it. Sounds fab. In terms of 'not thinking of future museums', my Iranian born husband tells a similar tragic story. The Shah's sister loved birch trees so he apparentely had a beautiful grove planted just for her private use. When the ayatollahs came to power, did they tear down the walls so the people could enjoy the small forest, in a country filled with much desert? No, they felled the trees.

  2. Gah! How terrible! Poor trees (to say the least)! And in this instance it was complete waste! At least the firing of the Savoy made a statement about oppression. *sigh*

    It's also terrible that you can't find this book! Christmas list? I see it all the time in our local bookstores...