Sunday, April 12, 2015


I can't remember where I first heard about this book, but I do remember where I first heard about the title character here, Katherine Swyndon.

I have bit of a penchant for books that follow the War of the Roses and the Tudor period of English history.  I think it was Alison Weir's book The War of the Roses that mentioned her briefly as the woman John of Gaunt, the 1st Duke of Lancaster, married for love and who thereby became the ancestress of the Tudors and many other Very Important People.

Somewhere along the line, I heard that Anya Seton's book Katherine is an excellent portrayal of Katherine Swyndon's life.  I will say this for it - it's O.K.  I think its also important to remember that this book was written in 1954.  Not as much was known of Katherine's life then as it is now, and attitudes were different.

There are a lot of things that bug me - Katherine taking care of her estate at Kettlethorpe being one of them.  A few times we expect it to be a transformation and a calling for her, and each time she more or less abandons it when Lancaster calls.

Second, Katherine in this book has a fictional serving woman called Hawise.  Hawise and her family are convenient fictional devices, but they are stretched to the point of incredulity.  For example, there is a point where Hawise says, essentially, "Oh don't worry about me missing my husband and child, I like you much better than either of them!"  Really???

Third, John of Gaunt is underwhelming in this book.  He's a great and influential historical figure, but the book more or less makes it seem like all of his good qualities arise out of not being obviously insane, like most of his contemporaries.  And there is one point where he does go a little bit insane, so there's that.

And lastly, the idea that one of John of Gaunt's retainers took the initiative to murder Katherine's husband just takes the cake.  From what I can tell, it was a real rumor at the actual time of Hugh Swyndon's death, but the novel uses it to have Katherine avoid making the negative moral choice she very probably did in real life: becoming John's mistress while still married.  Come on, that's the easy way out!

There were also plenty of things I liked, and of them, probably the best is the attention Seton paid to the religious feelings of the time.  And to the role that religion played in the life of most people, including Katherine.  The moments she spends at the end of her pilgrimage are lovely.  Most likely complete fiction, but lovely :)

Final call:

This is a long book for a somewhat slender payoff.  Unless you're an aficionado of the time period, I'd skip it.

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