Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Katherine ~ by Anya Seton - A Book Review

This book will be added to my list of all time favorite books.  The story Katherine Swynford, the third wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, held me spellbound for days.  Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres.  I have read much of it, but I believe no one writes historical fiction better than Anya Seton.  I just recently discovered her writing.

Published in 1954, Katherine, tells the love story of Katherine Roet, later Lady Katherine Swynford,  and John of Gaunt.  I personally learned much about British history while reading this well researched book.  To classify this book as just a work of historical fiction does not do it justice.  It truly is a classic and sets a standard few reach when writing historical fiction.  This wonderful work of Anya Seton's is more, much, much, more than just a book of historical fiction.  Reading it is like it must have been to view the richly woven Avalon tapestry depicting King Arthur and his Queen that was said to  hang in the Duke's privy apartment of the Inner Ward of the once great and beautiful Savoy Castle.  Truly, the telling of this story is so intricately woven that  both the scope of the story and the smallest details work together to form beautiful, unforgettable word pictures in the mind of the reader. Noted small details blend together into the texture and design of the work to create a rich panorama of dramatic and everyday events that depict the life and times of these two figures from history.   At times it almost reads like a modern day love story written by Chaucer himself.

A young teenage Katherine Roet became known at court during the days of Edward III of England when her sister, Philippa Roet, served in the house of Queen Philippa.  Philippa Roet would later marry Geoffrey Chaucer.  Thus, Katherine was Chaucer's sister-in-law.

Katherine's personality and character captivated me.  An orphan, she once lived in a convent until she came to court.  It was here in the convent where the foundations for her strong moral character were established.  She would need these solid values as she faced great loss, and criticism, and danger.  She unhappily was forced into a marriage at a young age to Sir Hugh Swynford, described as an unattractive older man whom Katherine found repulsive.  After she bore three of Sir Swynford children, and after he subsequently died, she beame the mistress of the Duke of Lancaster.  She bore four children to the Duke during the years that they were lovers.  These children, the Beauforts, were later legitimized when she became the third wife of the Duke of Lancaster.

She was caught up in the Peasant's Revolt of in 1381 when the Duke's Savoy Palace, where she was residing, was sacked and burned.  It was at this time, that the two lovers separated.  Katherine went on a religious pilgrimage after the Peasant's Revolt, and after she left John of Gaunt.  It was then when she met Lady Julian of Norwich, a mystic.   After this encounter, she returned to Kettlethrope Hall in Lincolnshire, which she had inherited from her husband, Sir Hugh Swynford.

Katherine is a woman of strong character.  She is also a complex character as depicted by Seton. As I think of the narrative of book itself, and of Katherine, I am reminded of the how in many way's Katherine's story follows the path of Campbell's hero's journey.  I may be on shaky ground by making this comparison.  This book is not a myth. The main character of the story is a figure from history.  In my opinion, the narrative  takes Katherine through many of the stages found in Campbell's monomyth.  While she doesn't venture into the world of supernatural wonder, she certain does experience a profound turning point in her life when Savoy Castle is sacked, when she learns the truth of her husband's death, and when her mind and spirit are healed by Lady Julian at Norfolk.  After this encounter, she is freed from the pain of the past and is able to live a life that is far from court.  Upon her return to Kettlethorpe, she freed her serfs and eventually established a respectable status in Lincolnshire.

Near the end of John of Gaunt's life, in 1396, he married Katherine.  At this time, she became the Duchess of Lancaster.

I concur the reviews that call this book one of the best written love stories of all times.