Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Following the Trail of Anya Seton's Green Darkness by Tamara Mazzei

Ask a fan of historical fiction for a list of favorite books and, almost inevitably, one by Anya Seton will be somewhere on the list. Green Darkness and Katherine are definitely near the top of my own list.

I read Green Darkness as a teenager and never thought of it as anything other than fiction until I was planning a trip to England in 1993 and learned that many of the places in the book exist and can still be visited.

The Story

The story begins with Celia -- a young American woman, recently married to an English baronet who has feelings of deja vu when she visits certain places. After a disturbing incident with her new husband, she is cast into a physical state in which she relives a previous existence in 16th Century England.

There is danger for Celia in both her current physical state as well as the unresolved difficulties of her previous life, and in both lives, there is a somewhat knowledgeable and sympathetic character who tries to help her.

The Spread Eagle

My first realization that the places in Green Darkness were not fiction came when I was making hotel reservations and ran across a listing for the Spread Eagle hotel in Midhurst. Though it had been nearly 20 years since I'd read the book, the hotel name caught my eye. In her past life, the character of Celia had worked as a tavern maid at the Spread Eagle in Midhurst.

The hotel brochure said the hotel had been around since the 15th century. It was in the right place -- so I made reservations to spend a night there (I was going to be in Sussex anyway, or so I told myself),
though I wasn't really sure it was the same place. There was no World Wide Web to check things easily in 1993!

The hotel itself was wonderful. They say they have been serving travelers as a coaching inn since 1430 and I can believe it. We had a room on the top floor in the oldest part of the hotel, with a low beamed ceiling and casement windows looking out over a bank of roses. We had breakfast in the restaurant, which has an immense fireplace and what (I think) were some sort of puddings hanging from the ceiling.

And it was, indeed, the same Spread Eagle as the one in Green Darkness. Even better, Cowdray House, Celia's later home, was just down the road!

Cowdray House

Cowdray House is now in ruins, but there is enough left to imagine the place as it must have been when it was owned by Sir Anthony Browne, the first Viscount Montague -- another character in Green Darkness.

The ruins are haunting and evocative and it's easy to see how they may have inspired Anya Seton when she wrote Green Darkness -- especially the legend of Viscount Montague's curse.

Nigel Sadler has written a detailed history and description of Cowdray House and if you are interested in the place, his website is well worth a visit.

There are numerous other places from the novel that you can visit, but Ightham Mote, the final home of the medieval Celia, is probably the most intriguiging. It is a medieval moated manor house, now owned by the National Trust.

Ightham Mote does indeed have a ghost story -- the body of a woman discovered in a walled up room--just as the story is presented in Green Darkness. The woman is thought to have been Dame Dorothy Selby whose misdirected warning letter alerted Parliament to the Gunpowder Plot.

I did not get to visit Ightham Mote when I was there, but it makes a good excuse for another trip to the area. (As if I needed one!) All in all, the short time I spent in Midhurst was one of the unexpected highlights from my first trip to England; I definitely intend to visit again!


  Originally posted at   Trivium Publishing


  1. I love seeing places that I've read about in real life!

  2. I've only read Katherine by Anya Seton, but thanks to this post, I will have to read Green Darkness! :)

  3. Thanks for this. I've been intrigued by Ightham Mote ever since I read how Anya Seton took a tour and learned the story of woman walled up and used it as the basis for Green Darkness. It is still one of my favorite Anya Seton novels. Didn't know about the Spread Eagle. How intriguing.

  4. I *love* Green Darkness, but had no idea that there were real places behind the narrative - that is so interesting thank you for sharing.


  5. I love it when a book makes you want to go and see the places where it was set. A lot of times for me that has to be online, but one day I will get to some of these places.

    Fascinating guest post.

  6. Thanks so much for the guest post and for the armchair traveling. I hope to visit real place in some of the books someday but for now the internet and wonderful posts like yours allows me to get a glimpse.

  7. These are great and helpful.
    I finished this book about an hour ago and so I am checking reviews before I post on LibraryThing and my blogs.
    This is my first book I have read by Anya Seton.
    I began the book and got to Part 2 and decided it was not for me so decided to read the last chapter. I then thought it sounded interesting and read the whole book and the last chapter again. Actually, reading the last chapter first worked best for me.
    It was not a page turner for me but got better about half-way through the book. I thought there were too many characters and too much happening.
    It is a well written book and interesting bits of history.
    Thank you for the pictures; that brings the book together. I like sketching in books when I read them and I think this would have helped the book(for me).
    It does make me want to do some research on some of the characters.

  8. I just finished Green Darkness (literally - less than 30 minutes ago!) and couldn't wait to dig in to all the websites that have info about it.

    Your site/post is fantastic - thank you so much for doing the research and putting everything together on one page for us to dig into! :)

  9. Celia DeBohun was actually a real person too! She is one of my ancestors, no joke. I haven't even read Green Darkness but I was doing research on my family history, and stumbled across Celia, who had died while carrying a child of the master of the manor she worked in. The mistress of the manor was jealous when she found out, of course, and she had Celia walled up in the pantry she was building. Celia never got out, her unborn child also dying with her, for there was no way for her and her child to get out. I swear I haven't read the book and I'm not making this up.