Katherine by Anya Seton

March 14, 2012

Plot summary (from the publisher): 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.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • According to the foreword or introduction, this novel was painstakingly researched by Seton (who apparently is a top author in the historical fiction genre). Although I have no way of knowing for sure, the details of the period felt very realistic, and I was never pulled out of the story by a description that seemed incongruous. The author’s words were also chosen carefully, so the story didn’t sound like it was being told from a modern writer.
  • The love story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt was one that I’d never heard of before, but it was quite captivating. I was pulling for them to be together, and was completely thrilled when they finally did marry after so many years. It was obviously true love because John had nothing to gain, either personally or politically, from marrying Katherine at that late stage, and that made it all the more romantic, of course.
  • I thought it was interesting that Katherine’s brother-in-law was Geoffrey Chaucer, and I enjoyed all mentions of him in the novel. I just wish he was a bit more involved in the storyline, especially since the author mentioned tantalizingly in her intro that she suspected many of Chaucer’s descriptions of beautiful women in his poetry were inspired by Katherine rather than her sister (Chaucer’s wife).

Disliked:

  • The religious stuff was kind of boring, especially the part about Katherine being a penitent or pilgrim or whatever. Though I have no doubt that was common for the period an d was an important part of Katherine’s life, it bogged the story down for me.
  • John of Gaunt’s concerns about being a changeling seemed very strange, and though Seton addressed this many times in the novel, I never quite understood the significance of it. I kept expecting there to be some sort of payoff at some point, but that never happened. Why would the noble Duke care so much about what amounted to little more than a taunt from a jealous childhood acquaintance??
  • I felt that the author undertook too much when writing this book by including both the love story and the political upheavals of the time. The novel just felt overly long and the shifts between politics and romance became tedious after a while. I think focusing on one or the other would have resulted in a much tighter, more focused work.

Rating:

I am not a big historical fiction reader, so this was my first Anya Seton book. I thought the love story between Katherine and John of Gaunt was great, but I could have done without a lot of other aspects of the book. Nevertheless, the details and descriptions of life in 14th century England were interesting, and make Katherine worth reading. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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