Review: Katherine by Anya Seton


This classic romance novel tells the true story of the love affair that changed history—that of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the ancestors of most of the British royal family. Set in the vibrant 14th century of Chaucer and the Black Death, the story features knights fighting in battle, serfs struggling in poverty, and the magnificent Plantagenets—Edward III, the Black Prince, and Richard II—who ruled despotically over a court rotten with intrigue. Within this era of danger and romance, John of Gaunt, the king’s son, falls passionately in love with the already married Katherine. Their well-documented affair and love persist through decades of war, adultery, murder, loneliness, and redemption. This epic novel of conflict, cruelty, and untamable love has become a classic since its first publication in 1954.

My Review

I first read and enjoyed this book many, many years ago—way before I ever delved into research of this period. I didn’t know any of the characters. And so now, reading it again on impulse, it was like visiting old friends. I know the story thoroughly, and can say with no reservation that the author was faithful to the history of the period. The places where she took creative license—like placing Katherine in the Savoy during the Peasants’ Revolt—were well thought out and enhanced the story. That particular passage was fabulous; I really felt the terror of being at the mercy of marauding fiends:

Soon the bearded Kentish peasant came back into the room with Cob, leaving Jack in the passage to finish with Brother William’s body. The man from Kent seized the pike the friar had tried to use and amused himself with shattering each of the tinted windowpanes, one after the other, proudly counting as he did so, “One, twa, tree, four—“ He had learned no higher than ten, so he started over again.
He had still two panes left when they heard the shouts of their leader from the passage and Wat Tiler strode into the chamber, crying, “Come lads, come. Get on wi’ it. What’s keeping ye so long?”

It was very tricky for the author to get her out of this horrendous situation, and I lost a lot of sleep during this and other passages in the book. As we know from a study of Gaunt’s life, they parted company in an attempt to assuage their guilt over their affair after the Savoy was burned down. It was commonly thought that Gaunt renounced the relationship and went back to his second wife. Here, she was the one who made the decision. Who knows? It could have happened that way. These departures from the historical record—sparse though it was—do not detract from the story. Even the formidable John of Gaunt comes across as flawed but human and likeable. It was a very satisfying read and I can understand why I liked it so much the first time.


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