One of the pros (and cons) of being an author is that you must explore other books in the same field as yours so that you can learn how your work relates to the literary world. Frequently, my forays into historical fiction remind me why I want to write historical fiction — to give readers an accurate picture of medieval people instead of giving them modern thinkers with modern sensibilities in medieval dress. (Is it sound historical research to assume that every medieval man who produced no known bastards or legitimate progeny must have of necessity been a homosexual?) Occasionally, however, my research uncovers a real gem, reminding me why historical fiction is the queen of all the genres. Such a gem is Katherine, by Anya Seton.
Katherine, named after its title character Katherine Swynford, first intrigued me because of its fourteenth century setting. Beginning almost exactly where my book I Serve leaves off, it tells the story of the woman destined to be the ancestress of the Tudor family. Convent bred and of lowly parentage, a young and beautiful Katherine visits her sister at the court of Edward III. She immediately catches the eyes of the English nobles, especially those of the coarse and ugly Hugh Swynford. Overcome by his lust, Hugh Swynford attempts to rape her, but John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and third son of King Edward, intervenes and saves her. Hugh is forced to offer Katherine honorable marriage as the only way to possess her.
Secluded on Hugh’s estate of Kettlethorpe, Katherine leads a miserable and lonely life away from her sister (and her sister’s husband Geoffrey Chaucer). She bears Hugh two children, naming the eldest Blanche after the lovely Duchess of Lancaster, the wife of the protector whom she has come to admire so much. Her husband Hugh spends much time abroad, helping the Duke of Lancaster wage war in France and Spain. When the Black Plague flares up in England striking the house of Lancaster, Katherine visits the Duchess and obtains a priest for her in her last hours. She follows the funeral procession to London and greets John of Gaunt on his return from the continent. After his grief at his wife’s death fades a little, the Duke’s supressed attraction for Katherine comes to the surface. But despite his importuning, Katherine’s religious qualms will not allow her to become the Duke’s mistress.
A few years pass as Katherine tries to reconcile herself to life with the boorish Hugh Swynford. Eventually, he is taken ill. One of the Duke’s retainers (knowing that his master’s passion for Katherine) procures a poison which Katherine unknowingly administers to her husband. Free at last of her husband, Katherine yields to the Duke’s entreaties and they find blissful love together in an illicit union.
In order to screen his real relationship with Katherine, John of Gaunt appoints her governess to his children. Despite the whispers and denunciations of the court and the Church, Katherine’s earlier religious qualms have completely dissolved. She has now come to believe that there is nothing more than this life and this love that she feels. She bears the Duke four children, known as the Beaufort bastards, and thinks of little more than adorning herself to please her paramour. Her biggest concern is jealousy for John’s second wife, the Queen of Castile through whom he intends to gain the throne of Spain.
The political situation in England becomes increasingly unstable as Edward III totters into senility. Unpopular with the lower classes, the Duke of Lancaster is vilified as the cause of all the problems. When the throne devolves to young Richard II, the peasants rise up. Anya Seton’s depiction of Peasant Revolt of 1381 is masterful. As Katherine and her eldest daughter Blanche are trapped in Savoy Palace, surrounded by a mob of angry villeins, the truth about Hugh’s death finally comes to light.
Miraculously, Katherine escapes death as the Savoy Palace burns to the ground, but she emerges from its ashes a changed woman. Aghast at her sins, she resolves to break off all connection with the Duke of Lancaster. The Duke is enraged when he receives this news and announces that he has cast her off entirely. Barefoot and weary, Katherine visits the shrine of OurLady at Walsingham, hoping to receive a miracle and atone for her sin in some way. When the miracle does not come, she despairs to the point of seeking death, but a village priest finds and takes her to the home of Julian of Norwich. The first of the female mystics, Julian of Norwich had many visions of God and revelations of his love for her. She nurses Katherine back to health, healing her spirit as well as her body and teaching her that God understands our frailty and offers forgiveness.
Katherine gains the courage and resolve to return to the Swynford estate of Kettlethorpe, amid the taunts and sneers of the surrounding world, and raise her children alone. As the years pass, her kind and patient spirit gains the goodwill of her serfs. Eventually, word comes of the death of the Duke’s second wife, and Katherine hopes against all hope that a message from the Duke will follow….
Although reading Katherine started out as research, it ended as a pure delight. I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in a story of love and redemption.