Monday, 6 July 2015

Katherine by Anya Seton

When I started reading this book, my husband looked at the cover and asked if I'd picked it to read based on that alone. I used to have this poster over my bed before we moved in together, then later, above the couch in our living room. I said no, as I'd had no idea what the cover would be when I went to pick it up. But it is a nice piece of synchronicity.

Of course, the significance of The Accolade to the story of Katherine Swynford is perhaps tenuous. She never knighted anyone, never ruled anyone, is important in as much as she is because of her proximity to power, not the official wielding of it. But perhaps I'm being pedantic.

The reason I did pick this book up is because it's on the BBC Big Read, which I believe I am now about 5 books from finishing in its entirety. It doesn't surprise me, therefore, that this is a historical romance about Katherine Swynford, long-term mistress to John of Gaunt, father of Henry IV.

I'd be interested to read more about Katherine. While I believe Seton has done a lot of research on the dates and events, her Katherine's character is one that I would like to know if the evidence in any way supports. As she stands in this novel, she's not interested in power, or politics. She just wants her lover and to hide away from the eyes of the world, frequently wracked with religious guilt over her sinning.

Looking at the wiki entry, looks like at least one book has been written about her as a mover behind the scenes, which might be more interesting than this guilt-wracked lover. She's remarkably powerless in this, and while women had less and different access to power in this period, it doesn't mean they're utterly helpless. Katherine in this book is irritatingly so, at times.

It also brings the reason she and John of Gaunt have a long affair and eventually marry when his wife dies down to sheer physical attraction, which is great to start, but there had to have been more once the fires had been banked for the night.

Still, it's not a bad read, and it's fun to run into Geoffrey Chaucer. The practicality with which the people involved regard marriage are interesting, as is the overall sense of grime to the world, leavened by the relatively easier lives of the extremely well-off nobles. If you're looking for historical romance, I think you could certainly do worse.

However, the main character is just so angsty and powerless. It's a choice, to make her whole life be about whether or not she gets to sleep with John of Gaunt, but the author's choice to take her out of all but one of the major events of the times, for her to be content to never ever know what her lover's doing, or how it might affect her until she's forced just feels like a missed opportunity. There's definitely an interesting story here. There's just that little voice in the back of my head that tells me this book would have been better if there had been some speculating on oblique ways of influencing the course of events. She calms him down once. Was that all she ever did?

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

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