Thursday, March 21, 2013

Katherine by Anya Seton

Today, another historical novel, this time an oldie but a goodie.  I first discovered Anya Seton’s Katherine in 1978 when my English teacher thought it would be useful in giving us the context behind Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, so she made it required reading.  Naturally, since it was assigned, I was prepared to hate it. 

Instead, I fell in love with Anya Seton's amazing storytelling.  Katherine tells the story of convent-bred Katherine Swynford, who comes to the court of Edward III and captures the heart of the married Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt.  But this is not just a tale of illicit love set against a well-realized medieval background (though it is that!)  Seton doesn't simply bring the setting of 14th century England to life. She makes her characters real, right down to period attitudes and beliefs.

One of my biggest pet peeves with historical fiction is when I feel like I'm reading about modern people dressed up in costume.  Not here.  Katherine Swynford is a 14th century lady.  John of Gaunt is a duke and king's son with all the assumptions and inherent privileges that go with his rank.  The minor characters are also well developed and unique.  Of course, Katherine and John and the rest were real people, but it takes a special writer to turn reality into enjoyable fiction while still preserving the essence of historical truth.  Anya Seton delivers.

Katherine is available in print and audio CD.  Other classic writers known for historical fiction include Cecelia Holland and Daphne du Maurier.   If you want to know more about the real Katherine Swynford, try Alison Weir’s Mistress of the Monarchy.

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