Sunday, June 20, 2021

Rereading Anya Seton's Katherine after 35 years

This past week, I found myself in the rare situation of having no pressing review deadlines. I had just purchased a Kindle copy of Anya Seton's Katherine after seeing it on BookBub, figuring it would be easier to read than the small-print paperback I'd bought at a used bookstore as a teenager. So the timing worked all around to dive back into this medieval epic, which had been a favorite read long ago, and which I hadn't read in full since writing about it for a high school book report.  (Though I had skimmed it, back in 2004, in order to include it in Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre.)

Some aspects of Katherine have remained with me all this time, in particular the emotional impact of the unlikely-but-true love story between Katherine Swynford, born a herald's daughter in Picardy, and John of Gaunt, third son of England's Edward III. Their numerous royal descendants include the Tudors, Stuarts, and current members of Britain's royal family.

Multiple scenes and specific lines have stuck with me. I was especially pleased to see that the same family tree from my 1950s-era paperback was reproduced in the Kindle edition, which was published by Seton's original publisher, Houghton Mifflin (now also Harcourt). Sadly, this venerable publishing name will soon cease to exist for fiction.

Family tree from Anya Seton's Katherine

Novels with genealogical charts have always interested me, since they reveal a story in themselves. In the case of Katherine, its presence at the very beginning means that a good part of the storyline is given away ahead of time, a fact which concerned Seton. After finishing Katherine, I flipped through Lucinda H. MacKethan's recent biography of the author, Anya Seton: A Writing Life (Chicago Review Press, 2020), and avidly read the excerpts from Seton's personal journals at the time, including her words: "There's no suspense, how can there be when the genealogical table shows Katherine gets her duke in the end."

Seton also worried her prose was insufficiently polished and that her adherence to historical fact made her story less dramatic than it could have been. None of these concerns held true in the final product, in my view. Knowing the outcome in advance doesn't lessen the power of the story at all. Her portrait of 14th-century England simply glows, like light through a stained-glass window, bringing alive the colors and personalities of this centuries-old era.  

Scene from Jean Froissart's Chronicles
Richard II meets the rebels on 14 June 1381, from illustrations
in a miniature from a 1470s copy of Jean Froissart's Chronicles.
(public domain: Wikipedia)

What I hadn't remembered about Katherine is its detailed presentation of the Black Death and its deadly effects, and its socioeconomic repercussions years later, culminating with the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Neither Katherine nor her John are present in many of these scenes, which serve to provide an overarching picture of the English fourteenth century. Julian of Norwich plays a prominent role toward the end, providing Katherine with religious advice, and I look forward to meeting her again in Mary Sharratt's new novel Revelations (coincidentally, another Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publication).

If a classic is a novel that stands the test of time, Anya Seton's Katherine is certainly that. It's never been out of print, and is worth discovering, and rediscovering, by many generations of readers.

20 comments:

  1. Am I recalling correctly her portrait of Chaucer is of a drunken, feckless, hopeless poet who married above him, and a terrible disappointment? Or do I have this novel confused with another Swynford novel?

    Chaucer, of course, was anything but that picture, particularly since Chaucer: A European Life, was published in 2019, by Marion Turner. Chaucer was anything but a pining, feckless, useless poet, marrying above him. From his youth as a page he was a member of the King's Court, a working member, let us emphasize, with ever increasing duties and responsibilities.

    He was also wealthy from a youth, and became ever more so, due the Bubonic Plague killing so many members of his family, so their wealth, however much or little devolving to him almost alone. The pictures of this in Turner's book is fascinating, these insights into how the Plague refashioned so many families, making them literally wealthiers, as there were fewer members/heirs.

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    1. That must be from a different novel, because Seton's Chaucer is kind, supportive, and a good friend to Katherine. He's a talented poet who's a sharp observer of his era. He and Katherine's sister Philippa are described as a good match, although they aren't very similar (Philippa comes across as pretty bossy) and end up living apart later on in life.

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    2. ps - I'll look for the Chaucer bio. I'm pretty sure I bought a copy for the library...

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    3. Thanks so much, Sarah, for taking the time to clear that up for me!

      While reading this Chaucer biography, I lamented often that so much of this was never even considered in my Chaucer and medieval literature courses. But then, literature back then never considered anything 'outside' as having any affect upon a writer's choices as to what and when she wrote, particularly not the Bubonic Plague! Or, in modern literature courses, the Great Influenza.

      But then, I confess I don't recall the Bubonic Plague parts of Seton's novel (like, obviously, so much else!), though the awareness and effect of so many diseases in London were much in the mind of "The Winthrop Woman" which impressed me so much when I read it as a kid, I've never forgotten.

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    4. I don't recall learning anything about Chaucer's life when studying The Canterbury Tales in high-school English. Although we did learn about the structure of Middle English, somewhat.

      The Winthrop Woman is another I read as a teenager, though I remember almost nothing about it. Which is strange considering I grew up in Connecticut, and so few historical novels are set there.

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  2. I loved this book. I read all of Anya Seton's novels as a teenager. Devil Water and Katherine remain my favourites. I feel a re-read coming on!

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    1. Devil Water is one I need to reread, especially since it's another with a family tree in the beginning, as I recall!

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  3. "Katherine" has been on my TBR for quite a while - thanks for the nudge to move it up!

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    1. It would be interesting to hear your perspective as a newcomer to Katherine. Hope it turns out to be a good read for you!

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  4. Katherine is one of my favorite novels, even though I haven't read it for a long time. Glad to hear it holds up well. I remember reading it when I was in college (and not for a class). It got me through a terrible case of the flu. I also remember the novel that portrays Chaucer as a drunk who married above him. I don't remember the author or title (but if I have a chance, I'll look in my reading diary, because I'm sure it's there). It's a novel about Philippa, which was published in the late 1980s, possibly early 1990s. I read it shortly after I finsihed Katherine, and I remember being terribly disappointed in it.

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    1. I had read Katherine once on my own when I was around 15, and when I had the chance to read it again for school, I jumped at it.

      At one point in the past, I read Catherine Darby's The Love Knot, which had Philippa having an affair with John of Gaunt - pretty fanciful. I don't remember how Chaucer was depicted in that one, but I didn't like the book.

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    2. I think The Love Knot is the book I was thinking of. Chaucer was very unsympathetic in that book, if I remember right. I didn't like it, either.

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    3. I’ve enjoyed other novels by her, but that one isn’t her best work, or close.

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    4. Thank you, VK -- that even though my memory's defective, I did actually read a novel that so depicted Chaucer, even if it wasn't the novel I thought it was. Ha!

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  5. I have convinced my historical fiction book club to read Katherine for our September book. Can't wait to read it again for the fourth time.

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  6. That’s awesome. Hope it’s a hit with the other readers too.

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  7. I read all of Anya Seton's books as a teenager. My favorites besides Katherine (which sparked my love of the Plantagenets) but also Green Darkness, Dragonwyck, and Mistletoe and the Sword set in Roman Britain featuring Boudicca as a character.

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  8. I read them all also! Green Darkness was a favorite of mine, too, even though I didn't like many of the characters in the modern story.

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  9. Katherine was one of the novels that got me hooked on historical fiction, think I read it in about 6th grade maybe. Then I moved on to books by authors like Norah Lofts, F. Van Wyck Mason, Frank Yerby, Kathleen Winsor, Margaret Mitchell and Victoria Holt. I, too, have always been drawn to historicals that have family trees (must be the genealogist in me)--another one that stands out for me was the tree in Eleanor the Queen by Norah Lofts and Seton's The Winthrop Woman was fascinating because of the New England names. Seton holds up--just reread My Theodosia this past year and liked it again, even though it was not a happy story. Devil Water is definitely worth a read--it has a tree too--part of it is set up the James River in colonial Virginia.

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    1. I've read most of those authors and grew up with them, except for Mason and Yerby. I read everything of Victoria Holt's as a teenager and college student. My Theodosia is one I remember reading but feeling somewhat depressed about afterward, even though I knew how it was going to end. Seton's writing does hold up surprisingly well.

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