Katherine (This DIK review was written by a reader)
2004 reissue of 1954 release, Historical Fiction (1360s England)
Chicago Review Press, $14.95, 512 pages, Amazon ASIN 155652532X
Every once in a while, you stumble across a true story from history that smacks of a fairy tale. I found one recently in Anya Seton's Katherine, a fictionalized story of the romance between Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, the great Duke of Lancaster.
She was born a commoner - he, the third son of King Edward III. And, yet, students of history know the twice-widowed Duke shocked royal circles in 1396 when he married this woman who had been his mistress, the woman he'd loved for more than twenty-five years.
In Seton's hands, their tale of illicit love and redemption has everything a reader could want in a sprawling medieval romance. While she makes us want to cheer on true love, she doesn't over-sentimentalize the life John and Katherine share together. By making no secret of their affair, they openly defied the rules of church, society and chivalry, and faced plenty of powerful opposition.
Seton's carefully worded language brings the earthiness of the events and speech of more than 600 years ago to life. Getting swept up into the book's narrative is easy even though lives led in the mid-14th century are nothing like our lives in the 21st century. Some particularly memorable scenes are Katherine's impressions of a jousting tournament, her her tortured thoughts upon seeing her lover's wife for th first time, and her horror at coming face to face with a mob during the Great Peasant Revolt of 1381.
The story is also helped along by a colorful cast of authentic secondary characters, ranging from John's dour personal physician, a disapproving Franciscan friar, to Katherine's shrewish sister and her henpecked husband a philosophical scribbler named Geoffrey Chaucer. But it is the two main characters that we come to love the most.
Katherine is introduced as a naïve teenage girl, fresh out of convent school, when she first comes to court and develops an unrequited infatuation for the ten-years-older and happily married Duke. But her true mettle is shown when, against her will, she is quickly married off to one of John's landed, but cash-poor knights. Katherine secretly loathes her boorish husband, but makes the best of her loveless marriage and the impoverished manor she finds herself single-handedly running when he goes off to war.
Her husband's liege lord is never far out of the picture, though, and every time their paths cross, she is reminded of what she first felt for him. John's attitude towards her softens too, until he finds himself feeling quite protective of the young Lady Swynford.
When they both find themselves widowed several years later, Katherine and John's mutual attraction takes on a passionate nature. Their lives become irrevocably bound together, but marriage is out of the question. John's duty soon leads him into an alliance with a Spanish princess and a claim to the throne of Castile, leaving Katherine his wife in everything but name.
For a time, Katherine, happy at last in love, is able to repress her jealousy at having to share John with another woman and her own aversion to adultery. In a thoroughly un-modern way, she quietly accepts what John can give when he is able to spend time with her away from his political and marital obligations.
Such an imperfect situation cannot last forever, though. Their love faces a threat stronger than society's disapproval or the church's threats of damnation their own consciences. Events throw John and Katherine's relationship into turmoil. While they do not emerge unscathed, the crisis proves the strength of their bond.
History has not always been kind to John of Gaunt, seeing sinister motives in his control of government during the declining years of his father's reign and the minority of his nephew's, but presented here is a man of contradictions, as charming as he is fascinatingly flawed. John is a powerful prince caught between his unswerving loyalty to his family, and his ambition to be a king in his own right. Chivalry is a way of life for him, yet he cohabits openly with Katherine while his fanatical and unloved foreign wife keeps to herself in distant castles.
Still, it is easy to understand what Katherine sees in him. His combination of arrogance, sweetness and fiery temper make him one of the sexiest leading men since Rhett Butler.
There are no promises of happily ever after at the end of this tale, but it has a satisfying (and happy) conclusion, nonetheless. If you're looking for a light-hearted book you can breeze through in a couple of hours, Katherine is not it. But if you long for romance of substance, you could not ask for a more beautifully written novel. These two engaging lovers and the difficulty of their situation continue to haunt me long after I turned the last page.
-- Lynn Heitkamp
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