“Katherine” by Anya Seton – review

*STOP PRESS* – this is it.  I’ve found it.   The book that I can say is without doubt the best historical novel I’ve ever read.  I’m a massive historical fiction devotee as you all know, and I’ve read an enormous number of books in that genre, but until now I’ve never been able to get off the fence and pick an outright favourite.  “Katherine” has changed all that.

What makes it so good?  For me the answer is the portrayal of Katherine herself.  Creating a relatable character is a challenge for any author but I think writers of historical fiction have it doubly hard.  On the one hand, bury a character too deep in the historical context and they can seem distant and slightly unreal: a painted figure.  On the other hand, try too hard to make them resonate with the modern reader and you can end up with jarring anachronisms as they express thoughts and use language out of kilter with the historical setting.  Katherine works because she is an utterly authentic fourteenth century woman and at the same time a woman you feel you could converse and identify with if she walked in the room right now.  She’s very real – probably one of the most convincing female characters ever to sit within the pages of a book.

Of course, this novel is based on the true story of the actual Lady Swynford and, as I often do with historical fiction, I found it an informative as well as entertaining glimpse into a period I love.  Some years ago I read Alison Weir’s outstanding biography “Katherine Swynford” and was struck by the extraordinary power and influence wielded by this medieval woman, both as a result of her intelligence and strength of character, and also her association with some of the most powerful players of the late fourteenth century.  From Katherine we get the dynasty that became the monarchy of the post-medieval age, through the Wars of the Roses, The Tudors and beyond.  When taking on a figure such as this it would have been all too easy to take the “woman ahead of her time” approach, but what I found so fascinating about Anya Seton’s interpretation was the apparent contradiction – arguably very true to the reality of the period – of a woman who did undoubtedly hold a huge amount of influence but was at the same time subject to the whims and desires of the men around her.  Katherine holds her own when she comes up against dukes, diplomats and even the King, yet she has to endure the pain of seeing John of Gaunt, the man she loves, marry a foreign princess for purely political reasons.  When he summons her, she has no choice but to obey and when he leaves again she cannot choose to go with him.  This, we learn, was quite simply a part of life that all royal mistresses were expected to accept without protest; as was the loveless nature of her own marriage to Hugh Swynford, which was pressed upon her as a means of securing status and also because it was the wish of Hugh’s superiors at the Plantagenet court.

As you would expect, it is a story with many sad twists and turns.  Anya Seton’s writing is so precise and her words so well chosen that she can break your heart with a single sentence.  I don’t mind admitting that I cried several times, whether at the moment lonely squire Nirac realises he has been replaced in John’s affections or the moving final chapters when the broken-hearted Katherine finally finds some spiritual and emotional peace through the wisdom of anchoress Julian of Norwich.  The complex love story of Katherine and John is the thread that binds the whole novel together, but it’s actually a story about many kinds of love: a mother’s love for her children, love of God (and what happens when that faith is lost) and perhaps most importantly, love for oneself.  Only when Katherine makes peace with herself and stops being tormented by the accusations of others is she able to find true happiness.

On finishing this book I really felt that I had discovered something special.  Admittedly it has been around for years and I’m incredibly late to the party, but if any of you are yet to pick up this modern classic, do it now.  Right now.  Go on.

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