Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess by Alison Weir

  Seton spent several years researching Katherine, and her book has been repeatedly commended for its historical accuracy. It has even been listed in the bibliographies of works of historical non-fiction, which is no mean achievement. On the debit side, this has resulted in it achieving more credibility for accuracy than it deserves: Jeannette Lucraft, in her recent academic study of Katherine Swynford, has asserted that I myself quoted details from it as facts in my book Lancaster and York; actually (and apologies are hopefully in order), they came from F. George Kay's Lady of the Sun, a biography of Alice Perrers published in 1966, and it may be that Kay, in his day, relied more heavily on Katherine than he should have done, as Lucraft is correct in asserting that those details are not to be found in any contemporary source. For Katherine is essentially a novel, and although its author made impressive and commendable efforts to get her facts right, there are three good reasons why we should not accept hers as a valid portrayal of the historical Katherine Swynford.

  First, Katherine is essentially of its own time. Seton's John of Gaunt is derived partly from nineteenth-century perceptions of him, and partly from Clark Gable's portrayal of Rhett Buder in Gone With The Wind: one internet reviewer described John of Gaunt, as depicted in the novel, as 'the sexiest hero since Rhett Butler'. Then, by her own admission, Seton applies Freudian psychology in determining reasons for her characters' behaviour. Above all, the morality that informs Katherine is essentially that of the 1950s, not the 1300s: the heroine agonises over her illicit love in the manner of an early-nineteenth-century romantic, and when it comes to sex, she is a passive partner, leaving her man to initiate it. And she believes that a marriage based on love is a normal aim for any woman, a concept quite foreign to the fourteenth-century mind.

  Second, Katherine is as much about Anya Seton as it is about Katherine Swynford. Anya Seton was born Ann Seton in 1906, the only child of two highly successful, eccentric and fame-hungry writers. Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) was born in Durham, England, but later emigrated to Canada and the USA, and wrote more than fifty celebrated books on wildlife and anthropology, while his highly independent wife, Grace Gallatin (1872-1959), published seven popular books about her own exotic travels. Both of Ann's parents journeyed widely in order to research their books, and she inherited their restless spirit, wanderlust and thirst for fame and fortune. Like her heroine, Katherine Swynford, she grew up to be stunningly beautiful, and although she was clever and extremely knowledgeable, she was essentially a socialite and a style icon, who was feted by the high society of New York and Old Greenwich, Connecticut. A thousand guests attended her first wedding.

  By the age of seventeen, Ann had abandoned her former ambitions to be a doctor or an opera singer; she now dreamed of becoming a writer. She was already keeping journals that reveal her adolescent obsession with her appearance, and her early amorous adventures. In 1923, after a passionate courtship, she married a young Rhodes scholar, Hamilton Cottier, and then spent two very interesting and enjoyable years living with him in England at Oxford before moving to the duller academic world of Princeton, New Jersey, where her husband was based from 1925. By 1928, she was the mother of two children, Pamela and Seton, and feeling restless and suffocated by boredom. A highly publicised divorce in Reno was quickly followed by a second marriage in 1929, to an investment counsellor called Hamilton Chase, by whom Ann had another daughter, Clemencie.

  In the 1930s, Ann began writing in earnest, selling articles on home-making to magazines. She published her first short story in 1938, and in 194.1, her debut novel, My Theodosia, immediately hit the best-seller lists, bringing Anya Seton, as she was now calling herself, fame, fortune and legions of fans. In 1946 alone, her earnings from her books totalled a staggering $94,000. Nine more hugely successful novels were to follow; all were 'Book of the Month Club' choices, and two were made into Hollywood films. In 1954, there were calls for Katherine to be made into a movie starring Charlton Heston and Susan Hayward, but in the moral climate of 1950s America — in which one critic branded the book as 'obscene and evil' - it never happened, because it would have been impossible to show two adulterous lovers living openly in sin, producing four bastard children and then enjoying a happy ending without incurring any penalties for their immorality. In some ways, the novel mirrors Seton's own colourful private life which was the subject of extensive media interest. And her sympathetic portrayal of Katherine Swynford must reflect her own views on adultery and illicit sex. It is on record that she at first found the accusations of immorality amusing, then offensive, then simply tedious.

  Seton became renowned for her meticulous research - she refused to compromise historical accuracy in the interests of telling a good story, and she travelled widely in search of information, feeling that she could not put her subjects in authentic settings unless she had visited the places where they lived their lives. She spent four years researching Katherine, and journeyed all round England; even today, people remember her hard at work in Lincoln Cathedral Library. She hated it when her books were described as 'historical romances', preferring to call them 'biographical novels'. She might have said 'autobiographical', for she invested them with many of the moral, emotional, psychological and cultural aspects of her own life.

  Anya Seton was divorced from her second husband in 1968, and published her last book, Smouldering Fires, in 1975. Although her journals reveal that she remained obsessed with her 'love life' well into her seventh decade, her declining years were overshadowed by an advancing illness that prevented her from writing. She died in 1990, her fame long forgotten.

  The third reason why we should be cautious in accepting Anya Seton's portrayal of Katherine Swynford as historically accurate is that Katherine is essentially a romantic novel in the classic sense. Not just an old-fashioned love story, it is an emotional assertion of the self and a vivid exploration of the individual experience of its heroine. It is progressive in its championship of the beauty of sexual freedom and its implied condemnation of conservative morality, yet it also captures a sense of the spiritual with its theme of love and redemption. Threaded through it are the classic romantic cliches of remembered childhood, unrequited love, cruel conflict and lonely exile. It is an intense book, a romantic novel in the widest sense: passion and the sublime are at its core. And Katherine herself is the perfect romantic heroine: beautiful, sensuous and loving.

  Despite its substance, and Seton's own objections, Katherine was more often than not regarded as a lightweight 'romance novel', and was frequently displayed in this category in bookshops and libraries. Hence, when bodice-rippers became the fashion in the 1970s, Katherine, with its few discreetly erotic sex scenes, appeared outdated and fell from favour, as did Anya Seton's other novels. Yet for many readers, clearly, it remained a favourite book, and recent years have seen its reappearance in print, both in Britain and the USA, where an edition featuring the full original text (which was never printed in Britain) is now available. There can be no doubt that this book, with its lovely but flawed heroine, is held in deep affection by a large number of people. It is important to remember, however, that although - as Anya Seton herself stated — it is based on history, it is a work of fiction.

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  Alison Weir, Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess



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