Katherineby Anya Seton
Chicago Review Press, 512 pp., $14.95 (paper)
When first published 50 years ago, Katherine established Anya Seton as one of the premiere historical novelists of the time. Her lengthy and detailed research reveals itself in the fabric of her golden writing, textured like jacquard so that it appears completely different when viewed at different angles. The elegant prose of Katherine tells the story of Katherine de Roet Swynford, the 14th-century English-born lass who wed the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. That Katherine became sister-in-law to Geoffrey Chaucer and bred the Plantagenets, Tudors, and Stuarts seems like the stuff of fiction, but Seton breathes life into this little-documented historical fact. The lengthy story follows Katherine from a nunnery at age 15 to her death as Duchess of Lancaster at age 62, and weaves in the black death, England's changing mores, the Wat Tyler Rebellion, and a half-dozen other fascinating subplots of the time. Seton's talent is her ability to conjure not just the landscape and color of medieval England but the sensibility of the times. Seton composed two other notable works of historical fiction, Devil Water, about the Jacobite rebellion, and the devastating Green Darkness, the grande dame of modern time-travel romance. Green Darkness was also her second-to-last and finest book, but her work fell out of favor in the Seventies, when bodice-rippers came into fashion. Seton, you see, had become shelved with romance writers, and while she elevated the style to an art, her historical fiction deserves to be placed on par with Dorothy Dunnett and Mary Renault. Seton had a marvelously protracted embrace of love present in most of her books, and Katherine is a glorious example of romance in its most classic literary sense: exhilarating, exuberant, and rich with the jeweled tones of England in the 1300s.