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Katherine by Anya Seton
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Katherine (original 1954; edition 1954)

by Anya Seton

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1,957573,477 (4.21)200
richardderus's review
Rating: 2.75* of five

The Book Report: Since this is a resurrected review, I'm putting the Amazon book description here:
“This classic romance novel tells the true story of the love affair that changed history—that of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the ancestors of most of the British royal family. Set in the vibrant 14th century of Chaucer and the Black Death, the story features knights fighting in battle, serfs struggling in poverty, and the magnificent Plantagenets—Edward III, the Black Prince, and Richard II—who ruled despotically over a court rotten with intrigue. Within this era of danger and romance, John of Gaunt, the king’s son, falls passionately in love with the already married Katherine. Their well-documented affair and love persist through decades of war, adultery, murder, loneliness, and redemption. This epic novel of conflict, cruelty, and untamable love has become a classic since its first publication in 1954.”

My Review: Whoo baby! And we thought our generation invented sex, lust, and lechery! Our mamas read this paean to the ripped bodice and flung codpiece with, I feel morally certain, cool detachment and a keen analytical eye for its prosody. Because our mamas didn't *ever* think about s-e-x or l-u-s-t, now did they, because that would be ewww.

Well ha ha ha on us. This story of lusty Katherine the Flemish wench, sister-in-law of Chaucer and lover of a Royal Duke, wife of a stunningly boring man who just ups and dies (most handily) one day, and mother of something like six or seven kids (now doesn't that make your baby-maker sore just thinkin' about it?) was about as close to one-handed reading for girls as things got in 1954.

Not being a girl, I had a few problems with it. Crotch-fog did not obscure my vision of the novel as told tale. And there are some things that don't work about it. First is the Romance, the zeal of the organs for their mates, between Duke and minor court lady. It's not a romance, it's his dukeliness wantin' him a piece and Katherine, no dope, trottin' right along with the program. He's ROYAL! What kind of stupid wench says no to a ROYAL in that day and time?! He turns out to be my-t-fine in the sack, bonus!, but he is busy as hell plotting and scheming and what-all, plus he's got a political marriage to contend with, and he and Katherine raise his kids by his first wife, her kids, and their kids in a kind of modern blended family. It is this central fact that makes Katherine important: She did not marry the Duke until they were old, but her four surviving kids by him are...listen carefully, this is true and it's amazing...the direct ancestors of ALL SUCCEEDING ENGLISH ROYALS TO THIS GOOD DAY.

Here's one of the problems: Which story is Seton telling, the one-handed one or the historically astoundingly important one? It's never all that clear. And it's not unclear because the book is too short, because this damned thing is almost 600pp! (Ow.) It's not clear because Seton isn't clear in her mind what she's doing here. She's got two good plots and switches back and forth between them, which makes the book feel patched together.

Another issue obscured by the anticipation felt by lubricious readers of an earlier time is the book's clunky prose. This is La Seton describing Katherine, in her youthful innocence, meeting her future baby-daddy's first wife: "The duchess was today dazzling as the southern May, having dressed to please her husband's taste, in full magnificence of jewels and ermine. Her silver-gilt hair was twined with pearls and she wore her gold and diamond coronet. She smelled of jasmine and Katherine adored her."

That is the narrator, laddies and gentlewomen. The Narrator speaks in this breathlessly leaden, numbingly enthusiastic way from giddy-up to whoa. I won't go into what she has the lovers say to each other.

So don't go into this expecting new and exciting prose experiments, and don't go expecting a clearly defined plot. Do, however, go expecting the story to suck you right in and sweep you along, and do go expecting to keep your pillow-sharer awake from the fanning of turning pages. Repress your snorts of outrage at some of Seton's more moistly written passages, overlook some of her wrong-headed guesses at what filled the spaces in Katherine's historical record, and this could be a decent read.

For me, the seams itched and the sleeves were too short and the zipper caught me in a painful and distracting way. I say it's spinach salad, and I say to Limbo with it. (Not quite spinach and hell like the old cartoon. Guess you hadda be there. Sounded funnier in my head.) ( )
2 vote richardderus | Jun 12, 2012 |
All member reviews
Showing 1-25 of 57 (next | show all)
What a time to live through! Chaucer, plague, peasant's revolt. I love the way this book has fixed the history in my mind. It has made vivid to me the way people lived, how they were different and how they were the same. It has become one of the points I return to, and other historical events happened before or happened after - and often connected by a spiderweb of people, or places. There are so many connections that it must have been a fulcrum - an important time that leads even to the present. ( )
  Ma_Washigeri | Jun 17, 2014 |
Very slow read. Well written, but it wasn't enough for me. ( )
  LiterateHousewife | May 23, 2014 |
I was quite disappointed in this book after hearing how many people loved it. It was difficult to engage with the main characters and I found myself more interested in what might have happened to some of the minor characters and wishing that they were more developed. The book is too long by miles. Seton says in the introduction she spent three years doing research, and she never lets you forget it. I was disappointed she does not really give any of her sources. (I know, I know, it is a novel, but she does bang on about her research.


It was interesting to read it in conjunction with the 'Medieval Mind' season that is currently running on BBC4, if only to realise how un-medieval the characterisations are..


The book did make me do some independant research and sparked some interesting discussion in my reading group, so it was not a total waste. ( )
  dylkit | Feb 3, 2014 |
Probably first read this as a teenager, and absolutely loved it. A good companion book is "Mistress of the Monarchy" by Alison Weir, the non-fiction version of the likely truth. I do genealogy and some of my ancestors were from about that time, but, ALAS, no blood relation to John or Katherine.
  afinch11 | Aug 19, 2013 |
Solid, engaging historical fiction about the mistress of John of Gaunt who was the ancestress of the Tudors. Rich with period detail. The part that makes me knock the rating down is the horrible passage wherein Katherine becomes a guilt-ridden Christian who repudiates her own happiness. It was such a jarring disconnect and so typical of everything I loathe about Christianity that it spoiled the book for me. It's hard to imagine a moral and spiritual about-face of this magnitude and swiftness. Now I wonder about the accuracy of this passage. Luckily, Alison Weir has just come out with a book about Katherine which may answer my question. ( )
  satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
Marvellous book. One of those I almost wanted to start again as soon as I'd finished. Historical fiction exactly as it should be, takes real events and adds flesh to the bare facts (without bending history too much) to make an enthralling tale. It helps that this is one of the rare romantic happenings in English history and that John of Gaunt is a fascinating character even before he's been fleshed out and made man (a terribly attractive man he is too). I devoured most of this in two sittings - and it was about 10000 times better than the housework I should have been doing! ( )
  Helenliz | Apr 1, 2013 |
I'll say right off the bat, I'm not a huge fan of historical fiction, especially about the British royals like the Plantagenets (since there is such rich and interesting history -- were any of the men not huge letches? -- to make the actual stories very interesting.) All that said, I did mostly enjoy Anya Seton's "Katherine."

The novel is loosely based on the life of Katherine Swynford, a commoner who catches the eye of John of Gaunt, whose father and nephew were king of England. Standing between them is John's marriage to the queen of Castille (and Katherine's marriage to Hugh Synwford too.) They carried on with their affair anyway and Katherine bore John four children, starting the Beaufort line that would eventually become the Tudors when they sat upon the throne of England.

There isn't a whole lot known about Katherine herself (in fact, I was led to this book by Alison Weir's nonfiction book about Swynford, which relies on scant evidence like household records to recreate her life story.) Seton does a good job of giving Katherine an interesting and complex character, who makes missteps, doubts herself and behaves in a realistic sort of way.

Seton's prose is often overwrought and she occasionally gets quite bogged down in the details of 14th century life (or at least how she imagined it to be.) Despite that, she creates a story with enough charm and intrigue to keep it interesting most of the way through. ( )
  amerynth | Aug 5, 2012 |
The Katherine of the title is Katherine Swynford (1350-1403), an important figure in English history as she is the ancestress of many royal figures, and also, incidentally, sister-in-law to Geoffrey Chaucer, who married her sister Philippa. There are few known facts about what kind of woman Katherine was, which gave Seton plenty of leeway to turn her into a beautiful, strong-willed woman. Married off at a young age to a knight she actively disliked, she nonetheless caught the eye of John of Gaunt, of the House of Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Lancaster, the third son of King Edward III. They were lovers over a great number of years and had 4 bastard children, named Beaufort, and eventually married in 1396, three years before the passing of the duke. While their relationship is at the heart of the story, it is much more than a romance novel, as Seton does a wonderful job of bringing the 14th century vividly to life with rich detail, and putting the story firmly in the context of important historical events. Strongly recommended for fans of historical fiction. I listened to the audio version which is very well narrated by Wanda McCaddon, aka Nadia May. ( )
1 vote Smiler69 | Jun 24, 2012 |
Rating: 2.75* of five

The Book Report: Since this is a resurrected review, I'm putting the Amazon book description here:
“This classic romance novel tells the true story of the love affair that changed history—that of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the ancestors of most of the British royal family. Set in the vibrant 14th century of Chaucer and the Black Death, the story features knights fighting in battle, serfs struggling in poverty, and the magnificent Plantagenets—Edward III, the Black Prince, and Richard II—who ruled despotically over a court rotten with intrigue. Within this era of danger and romance, John of Gaunt, the king’s son, falls passionately in love with the already married Katherine. Their well-documented affair and love persist through decades of war, adultery, murder, loneliness, and redemption. This epic novel of conflict, cruelty, and untamable love has become a classic since its first publication in 1954.”

My Review: Whoo baby! And we thought our generation invented sex, lust, and lechery! Our mamas read this paean to the ripped bodice and flung codpiece with, I feel morally certain, cool detachment and a keen analytical eye for its prosody. Because our mamas didn't *ever* think about s-e-x or l-u-s-t, now did they, because that would be ewww.

Well ha ha ha on us. This story of lusty Katherine the Flemish wench, sister-in-law of Chaucer and lover of a Royal Duke, wife of a stunningly boring man who just ups and dies (most handily) one day, and mother of something like six or seven kids (now doesn't that make your baby-maker sore just thinkin' about it?) was about as close to one-handed reading for girls as things got in 1954.

Not being a girl, I had a few problems with it. Crotch-fog did not obscure my vision of the novel as told tale. And there are some things that don't work about it. First is the Romance, the zeal of the organs for their mates, between Duke and minor court lady. It's not a romance, it's his dukeliness wantin' him a piece and Katherine, no dope, trottin' right along with the program. He's ROYAL! What kind of stupid wench says no to a ROYAL in that day and time?! He turns out to be my-t-fine in the sack, bonus!, but he is busy as hell plotting and scheming and what-all, plus he's got a political marriage to contend with, and he and Katherine raise his kids by his first wife, her kids, and their kids in a kind of modern blended family. It is this central fact that makes Katherine important: She did not marry the Duke until they were old, but her four surviving kids by him are...listen carefully, this is true and it's amazing...the direct ancestors of ALL SUCCEEDING ENGLISH ROYALS TO THIS GOOD DAY.

Here's one of the problems: Which story is Seton telling, the one-handed one or the historically astoundingly important one? It's never all that clear. And it's not unclear because the book is too short, because this damned thing is almost 600pp! (Ow.) It's not clear because Seton isn't clear in her mind what she's doing here. She's got two good plots and switches back and forth between them, which makes the book feel patched together.

Another issue obscured by the anticipation felt by lubricious readers of an earlier time is the book's clunky prose. This is La Seton describing Katherine, in her youthful innocence, meeting her future baby-daddy's first wife: "The duchess was today dazzling as the southern May, having dressed to please her husband's taste, in full magnificence of jewels and ermine. Her silver-gilt hair was twined with pearls and she wore her gold and diamond coronet. She smelled of jasmine and Katherine adored her."

That is the narrator, laddies and gentlewomen. The Narrator speaks in this breathlessly leaden, numbingly enthusiastic way from giddy-up to whoa. I won't go into what she has the lovers say to each other.

So don't go into this expecting new and exciting prose experiments, and don't go expecting a clearly defined plot. Do, however, go expecting the story to suck you right in and sweep you along, and do go expecting to keep your pillow-sharer awake from the fanning of turning pages. Repress your snorts of outrage at some of Seton's more moistly written passages, overlook some of her wrong-headed guesses at what filled the spaces in Katherine's historical record, and this could be a decent read.

For me, the seams itched and the sleeves were too short and the zipper caught me in a painful and distracting way. I say it's spinach salad, and I say to Limbo with it. (Not quite spinach and hell like the old cartoon. Guess you hadda be there. Sounded funnier in my head.) ( )
2 vote richardderus | Jun 12, 2012 |
I'm not going to say anything about the story, there are enough reviews containing that information. Also it is based on the life of a real person and is therefore a work of biographical fiction. Seton has successfully recreated life in 14th Century England, at court and in other places. For me this is quality historical fiction and the character of Katherine is placed to show various issues of the day. Even though this book was first published over fifty years ago it is still fresh. I first read Katherine when I was a teenager and have read it a few times since then. This latest re-read was a welcome return to the medieval world. ( )
  calm | May 19, 2012 |
Katherine by Anya Seton is gateway historical fiction/romance for many avid readers, myself included. As a young teenager, I devoured this book [did I read it a dozen times?]. It's been a few years since I re-read Katherine, and perhaps the writing would not stand up to my matured judgement. All of my understanding of the chronologies and relationships of the royal houses of England come from reading books like Katherine. The passionate relationships provided momentum to understanding feudalism, the complex alliances and relationships, and the triggering events of history. ( )
  feeling.is.first | Dec 26, 2011 |
I love, love, loved this book! On audio it was great!

http://ktleyed.blogspot.com/2011/09/katherine-by-anya-seton-audio.html ( )
  ktleyed | Sep 26, 2011 |
If you haven't read this book and love history it is a must. So much detail, it is not a quick read but it really brings the history of the 13/1400s to life and gives you a real feeling of what it was like to live in those times. Beautifully written, I cannot imagine how much research was done! I thoroughly recommend it. ( )
  alisonb60 | Sep 7, 2011 |
If you love historical fiction and a good romance this book it for you. The beginning is a little slow, but well worth getting through. This is one of only a few that remain on my must read every year or so. Make sure you clear your schedule because after you get to the "castle burning" you will not be able to put the book down. Enjoy! ( )
  amylofgreen | May 30, 2011 |
I first read Katherine when I was 13 years old at my mama's recommendation (she always had a book in her hand too!). That was over 30 years ago and I still read and recommend Katherine. ( )
  jmbryant | May 25, 2011 |
I'd long seen this novel, published in 1954, mentioned as one of the great classic works of historical romance in the same breath as books such as Gone With the Wind, Forever Amber and The Far Pavilions and it's based on a true 14th century romance.

It took me a while to get into the book for several reasons. First, the book is written in omniscient, and it bounces between points of views incessantly. I've read writers who can do this expertly and so smoothly you hardly notice--such as Jane Austen, Michael Chabon and Alice Hoffman (and Margaret Mitchell for that matter.) I don't feel Seton is one of them. Points of view were sometimes changed even within paragraphs, which can be confusing, and I didn't settle inside Katherine's head early on enough to get immediately invested. And it seemed at first a rather empty head for the sister-in-law of Chaucer, a commoner who gained the passionate love of a great prince, John of Gaunt, who was a son of Edward III. However, when the novel begins, Katherine is a naive fifteen-year-old coming to court straight from the convent where she was raised. But I also found the way John of Gaunt was portrayed in the beginning rather off-putting as well. He at first feels this instinctive dislike for Katherine because she resembles his wet-nurse, a take hit on again and again in the book I found tiresome. The prose at times seemed stilted.

What kept me reading though was the picture of the medieval world which was vivid, well-detailed and seemed well-researched. I reveled in being taken to a a tourney and inside a medieval manor with its trestle tables, a leaking thatched roof with rushes on the floor. Eventually--I can even pinpoint where, the scene right after Katherine first gives birth--the love story took fire for me. From plague to peasant revolt, and portraits of figures such as Alice Perrers, Julian of Norwich, John Wycliffe, Wat Tyler and Geoffrey Chaucer, the novel offered up a fascinating historical tapestry. I did wind up totally absorbed in the story and sorry when it was over. ( )
3 vote LisaMaria_C | Mar 15, 2011 |
Interestingly one or two passages that are in the original hardback are missing here.
  PollyMoore3 | Dec 1, 2010 |
One of my all-time favourite historical novels. We know it probably wasn't quite like that (and Gaunt was far from the romantic hero of this book), but the overall picture of medieval life is convincing; it feels right. And this was the very first glimpse I had of Mother Julian of Norwich.
My father bought this copy for my mother, Christmas 1954.
  PollyMoore3 | Dec 1, 2010 |
A pleasure to read. Evenings and even some mornings spent with this book were a treat.
  nkmunn | Nov 12, 2010 |
Well researched, well written, a great piece of historical literature. Though it's a romance, it's not drippy or soppy, and it has enhanced my knowledge of history in a way a textbok could never have done. ( )
  jayne_charles | Sep 7, 2010 |
A really terrific historical novel. The setting, 14th century England, is vividly recreated, and the story is compelling. I loved this when I first read it, and I love it still. ( )
  annbury | Sep 5, 2010 |
What an enjoyable book! Seton masterfully transported me to 14th century England and kindled my interest in a part of British history about which I had known nothing. What more can one ask of historical fiction? Engaging characters and a page-turner story? Check! The love story came across a bit over-romantic, albeit plausible. It's so much more likely that the relationship was fraught with politics and power alla Alice Perrers. Still, the romanticism didn't mar my enjoyment of the immersive setting nor did it seem to affect Seton's portrayal of the happenings of the late 14th century. I've been dreaming in medieval England for days. ( )
  rbtwinky | Jan 31, 2010 |
This is a wonderful beautifully written and historically informative love story. I'm happy I purchased the paperback so I could read along with the audio version when necessary. The narration was choppy and had many distracting background noises that disrupted the beauty of this descriptive tale of 14th century trial, longing, angst, joy and love between Katherine Swynford and the Duke of Lancaster. ( )
  cannelle777 | Jan 2, 2010 |
Like other reviewers, I read this as a youngster, borrowing it from my brother. Until now, if I'd been asked to list my top 25 books, Katherine would have been on the list. I was fascinated by the story, by the history, by the people - people who are beacons of English history, Chaucer, John o' Gaunt, the Beauforts. It’s the book that made me interested in history.
When I saw it as a paperback as a "BBC Big Read", I thought I must have it in my own library and re-read it. It’s a handsome volume but a disappointing re-read. It has not aged well, being a bit stilted and with awkward prose, one that comes to mind and can be found easily – its on the penultimate page:
“- I don’t know - Katherine; I have a foreboding – there’s danger ahead.” … “It may be so, darling,” she said slowly … “there was no promise that we would not be tempested and travailed …”
There’s only so much of that I can take, and it's less than 580 pages. Sorry Katherine, I’ve much to be grateful to you for, but you’ve dropped off my “all time top” list. ( )
1 vote BobH1 | Nov 12, 2009 |
I'm not sure what I think of this book. I don't HATE it per se, but I felt so little about this novel that it is almost worth not mentioning. While fascinating in certain parts, I was bored to tears by the majority of it, but I kept on trucking in the hopes that Katherine would turn into something like the other Anya Seton novels I've come to respect and love. I much preferred Green Darkness.

I would go on with this review, but my cat has decided to stick her cold wet nose on my big toe, and I find that more interesting than spending time reviewing this novel.

If only this novel were as short as this review...not bad...just...not good. ( )
  quillmenow | Sep 4, 2009 |
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