I finally finished reading “Katherine” by Anya Seton as part of the Classic Club Spin #7. It took me a while to finish this book as different matters of great importance intruded and I can’t quite believe how much my life has changed between the time I began the book and now when I have finished it! But enough about remembrance of the past, onward to the book!
“Katherine” is a historical novel based on the true life of Lady Katherine Swynford and her love for John of Gaunt which spanned nearly 40 decades. I had resisted reading up on Wikipedia because I did not want my novel to be colored by historical details, at least until I actually finished the book and then went in search of the “real story’ (Do you ever read up on the real events that surrounds the historical novel…I always do!!!) The book begins with a penniless 15-year-old Katherine finally returning to her sister, who is one of the waiting women for Queen of England and it is on the behest of the Queen herself, that she returns to London from the Convent of Sheppey. Her unique beauty soon rouses the interest among the Lords and Knights of the Court; Hugh Swynford one of the landed knights falls in love with her immediately; however his lack of ability to express his feelings leads him to practically molest Katherine until she is rescued by Duke of Lancaster, the magnificent John of Gaunt. Hugh confesses his feelings for Katherine and proposes marriage to her which is looked on favorably by all including her sister Philippa who herself is engaged to Geoffrey Chaucer. John of Gaunt is at this 26-year-old and one of the popular Princes of the kingdom and his marriage the Blanche , the beautiful and generous daughter of Duke of Lancaster has made him the richest man in England, even richer than his own father, the King. Hugh Swynford is one his knight and through this relation springs forth the kindness that Blanche shows to Katherine and of whom she is truly fond off, that the latter’s years of marriage is made bearable to her. However the Plague epidemic soon sweeps through England again and Katherine on her way to visit Blanche discovers that the Duchess herself had caught the dreaded illness and is left alone. Katherine nurses her through her last days and sees to the Duchess religious comfort before she dies. The Duke slowly recovering from his Duchess’s death begins to realize his feelings for Katherine and when in France where Hugh is wounded, has Katherine called to have Hugh nursed. Despite the Duke open declaration of love for Katherine, who returns his love, she refuses to become his mistress as she cannot bring shame to her husband. However Hugh would soon die and John and Katherine are united and continue to live together despite John marrying the Infanta Constance of Castile for political reasons. Their life together is wonderful but soon like all good things, it comes to end, by a secret of the past , pulling the two lives apart leading to an almost tragic end.
The story begins a bit slowly, but soon picks up the pace and practically never lets up. Ms. Seton did not spend too many words to describe her characters; instead she got on with her story, which brought out the depth and the beauty of all her actors. The character of Katherine never flags – she is beautiful and she is noble and she is generous. Her only flaw is her blind love for John which makes her oblivious to everyone and everything especially the bumbling, but absolutely sincere and equally heartfelt love of Hugh. John of Gaunt is , well John of Gaunt, Prince of the Kingdom, the foremost knight of a chivalric era, loyal, kind with a tinge of vulnerability that makes him well, stereotypical hero. You love him, but then he is exactly like heroes especially Dukes and Earls are in books. Just wrong enough to be very right. It’s the minor characters that shine – Hugh, the wonderful Blanche, the ever loyal friend Hawsie, Richard III and other such historical persona like John Wycliffe, John Ball and Wat Taylor. In writing these historical figures, Ms. Seaton showed her true potential – they are all wonderful, colorful and like I have said so many times, like humans, carry an equal measure of good and bad. It is these characters that bring this story to life and add depth in what would otherwise have been a linear and very simple even maudlin love story. The book meanders a bit in terms of religion and spirituality, but one must remember that 14th century England was as religious as it was political and both these factors made it a buzzing bubbling melting pot. The historical battles and civil strives though described minimalistically, make a strong impression of the disturbance that surrounded the life and times of John of Gaunt that make this book a page turner. Finally the book’s descriptions of palaces, churches and the land is beautiful and dazzling– there was enough research done, especially considering the author was no historian and writing in 1950, when information was not easily accessible; to assure the reader of authenticity of 1300s with those brushes of realism – the squalor and smell among the awe-inspiring splendors of 14th century England, that makes this book a living, breathing, vibrating tale!
Definitely, most definitely a book that should be read at least once; now it makes perfect sense why its part of BBC’s 100 Big Reads!