Katherine (1954) by Anya Seton

katherine

Finally finishing this book at the weekend was a truly wonderful, joyous thing that can be traced back to a very mundane circumstance several weeks ago: I had to work between Christmas and New Year and while my colleagues were at home enjoying happy family fun times I enjoyed three beautifully lonely lunch hours in the staff room. A solid hour of uninterrupted reading time is pretty unheard of for me right now so the chance to do it three days in a row was a tremendous luxury. Like Christmas all over again in fact. It came at just the right time and stopped me giving up on Katherine just as I was feeling at my most fed up and demoralised about my failure to make progress. Hurray for Christmas miracles.

Katherine is a bit of a departure from my usual reading material. I enjoy historical fiction but usually avoid romance and I had a vague idea that this was a sort of epic love story complete with fair maidens, chivalry and jousting. I quickly realised that I wasn’t quite right about that (although there is jousting, be warned). Even if Katherine didn’t appear at number 95 on the BBC’s Big Read I might have been keen to read it anyway since it features a bevy of my favourite Plantagenets and the Plantagenets are always, always interesting, mainly because of all the (figurative) backstabbing and (literal) murdering they did during their four centuries in charge. The subject of this novel is Katherine Swynford, the daughter of a poor knight who, at the age of fifteen, joined the royal court of Edward III. The novel takes you from Katherine’s childish infatuation with the King’s son John of Gaunt through to their torrid love affair and the decades she spent as his not-very-secret mistress. Katherine wasn’t to know, of course, that in spite of quite publicly being branded a harlot by her contemporaries, she and John would eventually establish a bloodline that can be traced right down through the centuries to the modern royals.

I love the depth of the detail in this novel; that, and the fact that Seton grants the same attention to the minor things – the real names of Katherine’s attendants for example, or the history of Sir Hugh Swynford’s Lincolnshire estates – as she does to the pivotal moments in the romance. It’s like there’s nothing so insignificant that she doesn’t think it worth writing down. I know some people really hate all that useless detail in a novel because it slows down the narrative but, for me at least, it makes the historical setting really believable and kind of immersive.  Each time you close the book it’s a supreme effort to re-acclimatise to the real world, you almost have to shake the fourteenth century out of your brain and force yourself to remember where you are. I quite like it, but I’m weird like that. It helps, of course, that the Plantagenets are such good story fodder. Seton handles them well so that there’s just the right amount of domestic and political treachery for it to be entertaining without becoming completely absurd.

I wasn’t massively in love with some of the characterisation and at times I have to say that I found Katherine utterly, utterly exasperating. After spending much of the book demurely complying with the Duke’s every whim it made quite a nice change when she occasionally stopped all that half-hearted moral wrangling and made a decision for herself for once, even if it did jeopardise her own happiness. You wonder whether the Duke would have loved her quite so much if she hadn’t been so content to sit around in a castle for years, quietly hoping for the occasional visit, bearing bonny children and mysteriously never losing her looks or figure. I know that this sort of forced inactivity was a reality for a lot of medieval women but still, I needed something more here to make me really warm to Katherine or to root for her love affair. Reading it at a distance of sixty years it comes across as a little dated and even very slightly cheesy.

Immediately after finishing Katherine I began Vile Bodies and loved it from the start. I’m about half way through now and having a rollicking fun time; isn’t it funny how you can switch so easily from one response to another?

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