Set in Chaucer’s England, where knights still adhere to courtly love for their ladies fair, and squires serve their beloved masters with unparalleled faithfulness, Katherine depicts the story of Katherine Swynford, the long-time mistress and eventual third wife of John of Gaunt. The narrative is at once comprehensive as well as entertaining, and offers the reader an insightful glimpse into 14th century society. Katherine, and her sister Philippa, are the daughters of Paon de Roet, who was knighted right before his untimely death, which left his children orphaned. Katherine is raised in a convent until her sister, a lady-in-waiting for Queen Philippa, summons her to court in order for her to find a husband. Her beauty and quiet dignity draw instant attention to Katherine. Unfortunately, it bewitches the uncouth knight, Hugh Swynford, and he asks for her hand in marriage after accosting her. For a woman of common birth and no dowry to speak of, this is an excellent match, and spurred on by her ever-practical-minded sister, Katherine is in due time forced to accept the proposal. She’s then spirited away to live at Kettlethorpe, her husband’s shabby and isolated manor.
She has two children by Hugh before his untimely and intrigue-riddled death, and before long, becomes John of Gaunt’s love interest. After the duke’s beloved Blanche dies of the plague, he attempts to consumate his desire for Katherine. However, Katherine, who also dearly loved Blanche and tended to her on her deathbed, is wracked by fear and guilt, and flees back to her dismal existence at Kettlethorpe. However, when Hugh suddenly dies, Katherine has no choice but to confront her own all-encompassing love for John, and becomes his mistress.
She is set up as governess for the duke’s children, and in the comfort of his many homes, raises his two daughters while carrying on her passionate love affair with him. She bears him four children in all, which are called the “Beaufort Bastards”. However, their union is threatened by a plethora of circumstances: John of Gaunt is newly married to Constance of Castile, an infertile and stony-faced queen, the tragic Peasant’s Revolt, and the harmful publicity that their affair warrants.
I’m always impressed by a good historical novel. It’s unlike any other form of narrative, because it demands for a blend of fact and fiction which is oftentimes quite hard to achieve. Seton takes the real history of Katherine Swynford and her contemporaries, and wrestles from it a highly entertaining love story that is steeped in relevant historical detail. Not only was this an enjoyable read, but I also learned a great deal about 14th century British society. The novel has a solid grasp on research, and it’s apparent in the characterization and florid details of the novel. Seton not only scrutinized her main subjects: Katherine, John of Gaunt, and their extended family, but she also brings to life the minor characters—that of Katherine’s faithful servant, Hawise, the village peoples, and the various squires. Her focus on Chaucer is also appreciated—the reader is given a personal view of the enigmatic writer, and his day-to-day relations with his peers and loved ones. Honestly, the research, and its seamless incorporation into the narrative, is possibly the most impressive part of the novel. I never doubted the accuracy of the facts that I read because they were so plentiful and expertly explained. The devil is in the details—and Seton spares no small detail when it comes to fleshing out this riveting love story between a common woman and the highest-ranked duke in the land.
It’s obvious that Katherine is written as a sympathetic character, and for the most part, I found it easy to like her. There are times when she becomes caught up in her love affair, and fails to notice other pressing matters around her. Though an excellent mother, she is oftentimes blind to what her children really need. Also, due to the deeply patriarchal society of the time, it was frustrating to read about the treatment of women, considering I’m very much the modern feminist. However, the characters that are innately good at heart, despite their societal beliefs and habits, shine through the prejudice, rendering them easily forgivable. The characterization of John of Gaunt feels steady and accurate. This great man is not without great flaws, but his obvious love for Katherine makes up for his misdeeds, eventually. The dialogue, too, varies at times, which I suppose is to be expected from a modern portrayal of such a faraway time. However, the impressive control of Middle English that Seton possesses really adds to the flavor of the novel.
With any historical novel, and especially one geared towards romance, there’s a level of required fiction to the details. As I said before, Seton makes these believable, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a bit of imaginative inquiry. Obviously, due to the time period, there is limited knowledge of these people—even less information on their actual personalities and thoughts. However, I think Seton does a respectable job of breathing life into these characters, and creating, for the reader, a fascinating and well-researched novel that reads like an adult’s fairytale.
Reviewed by M. B. Sellers
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 10/1/2013