Katherine, by Anya Seton

If you are the kind of reader who likes being transported to a different world, you will thoroughly enjoy Katherine, the 1954 historical fiction classic by Anya Seton. So go ahead, jump down the proverbial rabbit hole and stave off reality for a few hours.

The book has been praised for historical accuracy by many reviewers, and that is one of its strong suits. What sets it apart, however, is Seton’s use of poetry, art, and the historic record to delight and enchant. Don’t think for one minute, however, that this novel is all romance and light.

Seton proves her mettle by full-bore narration of medieval customs and mores that are less than pretty. Her detailed description of a jousting tournament, for example, is riveting. Her description creates context that lets us sit by turns with both knights and ladies, the masses and the nobility.

As readers, we learn through Seton’s mastery of her subject the customs surrounding the blood sport, we learn the terrible price that is paid when a knight is unhorsed, and of the somewhat diffident attitude that prevails among all the participants, whether spectator or sportsman.

By contrast, Seton’s book also carries you along the ancient ways of May Day festivities with singing and “dauncing” brought to the English countryside by wandering troubadours and theatrical troupes.

With her eye for detail and vivid description, Seton sets the backdrop for the love story between Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, the Lancastrian royal duke, who is at first put off by Katherine, a commoner, and later completely swept away by her.

There is much drama between beginning and end, with the focus on Katherine who is introduced to us as a young girl who must leave the convent where she grew up to go away and live with her sister. From this beginning, you’ll be mesmerized, held in thrall by Seton, a writer who is lyrical, romantic, literary and factual.

You’ll also be enlightened as you read the events that led up to the union of Katherine and John of Gaunt (the original Duke of Lancaster). This is an important union in the annals of royal genealogy, since so many royals are descended from it.

At first, Katherine was John’s mistress, and the pair had several children together. After his wife died, John of Gaunt married Katherine, something that was almost unheard of at the time. Thus all the children that were born to the pair were legitimized and given the name Beaufort.

If you’re interested in just a good love story or a novel that will bring some richness to the medieval history that you already know, you’ll enjoy this book. After all it is considered to be THE best historical fiction ever written. Alison Weir, another fine writer of the genre has said that Katherine is the standard to which all other historical fiction is held.

Aside from its status as a template for the historical fiction genre, Katherine also provides us with glimpses of historic personages of the time. We meet Geoffrey Chaucer, who was married to Katherine’s sister; we meet Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic, and Jean Froissart, a French historian and poet. His history is an important source on the first half of The Hundred Years War.

Seton’s novel is a captivating interpretation of a time and place that modern-day dreamers and history buffs can read, re-read, and read again to discover the bits that were missed the first and second times. That’s the kind of book one wants when venturing down the rabbit hole.