Thursday, March 12, 2015

Beauty and truth of language elevate Anya Seton's historical fiction classic, Katherine

Guest Contributor

Katherine Swynford (née de Root), orphaned daughter of a favored knight, arrives at Queen Phillippa’s court on an ancient, balking horse, excited and hoping for a good marriage. The prioress whose poor priory has cared for Katherine hopes to receive compensation for that care. Neither is satisfied. The Queen is ill and has no thoughts for either the priory or Katherine.

But the coarse Sir Hugh Swynford has had thoughts since first seeing Katherine. Finding her alone, he forces himself on her, only to be stopped by his lord, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and future king of Castile. John is repulsed by Katherine’s grey eyes and happy to approve Swynford’s face-saving request to marry Katherine. Only later does John remember the grey eyes he loved as a boy, those of the woman who raised him and died of the plague.

So begins the love affair between John and Katherine that spanned thirty-five years. Their four children, legitimized by both king and pope after their marriage three years before John’s death in 1399, were the ancestors of the Stuarts and the Tudors—the royal line of England.

Ann Seton, writing under the pen name Anya Seton wrote a definitive story of their relationship in KATHERINE. In continual print since it
was first published in 1953 by Houghton Mifflin, it was listed ninety-fifth of the hundred best-loved books by Brits in a 2003 BBC survey and today is considered a classic historical romance. 

Seton would disagree, preferring the term “fictionalized biographies” for her well-researched, well-respected works. “I have a passion for facts, for dates, for places. I love to recreate the past and to do so with all the accuracy possible.” Margaret Moser, in a 2006 Austin Chronical article on Seton’s body of work, quotes Seton and adds, “Her historical fiction deserved better than to be placed on par with Dorothy Dunnett and Mary Renault.”

I agree. Her wonderful details allowed me to fall into fourteenth-century England: meals of eel jellies, peacock, and “hot tasty dishes brewed with the red peppers that dangled like strings of great rubies along the creamy inn walls”; beds of “molded goose feathers,” and “flea infested bearskin coverlet,” while other beds are hung with taffeta, jeweled with ostrich feathers and covered in silk sheets.

Likewise, her observations of the differing mores between the classes brought realism to the work: “Half the young squires’ sighing and languishing after somebody, it’s the fashion,” and “Some whoreson knight or squire had brought her to this, thought Hawise….” Scenes of the plague, tournaments and celebrations, war, masses, pagan festivals, and the Peasants’ Revolt show the diverse culture of the fourteenth century. Through it all, Katherine and John meet, love, part only to meet again, while Katherine’s brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer, writes his poetry and patterns his Criseyde after her.

“I have a passion for facts, for dates, for places. I love to recreate the past and to do so with all the accuracy possible.”

The facts of Katherine’s life are primarily available only as she interacted with John, and Seton honors this by glancing over the many years they were apart. Even so, she must interpret some facts and this she does by both what she knows and by the mores of the 1950’s. Most glaring of these is her assumption that Hugh Swynford was murdered by one of John’s retainers because the retainer thought John wished him dead. Katherine learns of the ‘murder’ as John’s Savory Palace burns during the Peasants’ Revolt. Overwhelming guilt pushes her to return to the dilapidated Swynford manor and John to turn fully to his wife Costanza. Given the temper of the fifties, Katherine got off easy: “a fallen woman” of film usually died.

It is easy to forgive such lapses (it does increase the drama!), not only because of the story itself, but also because of the beauty and truth of Seton’s language: “…creeping little jealousies and darting slanders that scurried like spiders into cover when one tried to confront them.” 

Carol Phillips has short stories in the Red Clay Review and County Lines: A Literary Journal, and poems in Haiku Journal. She is working on a collection of short stories while completing a memoir about her mild traumatic brain injury. A member of the NC Writers’ Network since 2006, she enjoys the literary and art world of Chatham Country, NC.


  1. I've gone though two copies of Katherine; my first was a used paperback found when I was 14 that fell apart on me a few years ago. The language is indeed lyrical, which made the reading the closest thing to a biography of this medieval woman more moving and interesting.

  2. OK, I'm putting this on my must-read list, thanks to you and Carol Phillips! Thank you!