It's impossible to be an historical fiction fan without hearing about Anya Seton's Katherine. For years I only read good things about it and several of my friends couldn't stop recommending it. Like many of those great books you intend to read for ages, but the right occasion never seems to show up, Katherine waited quite a while in my dusty TBR pile. When the Historical Tapestry team decided to organize a season about Anya Seton I jumped of joy. I couldn't ask for a better excuse!
The story begins with young Katherine de Rouet leaving the nunnery where she lived for several years after her father's death. She is to join her sister, Philippa, at court. Beautiful and shy, the young woman soon attracts the attention of two men, the creepy Hugh Swynford and the mysterious John de Gaunt. The first one is completely obsessed with her and does everything in his power to marry her, to Katherine's great despair. The marriage is unsurprisingly unhappy and soon Katherine and John meet again under other circumstances.
John of Gaunt is a man of his time. Duke of Lancaster, the third son of the King Edward III, he is ambitious, arrogant and surprisingly fragile. When he meets Katherine, it's clear he doesn't know what to do about her. He is attracted and repulsed at the same time to that breathtaking beautiful and earthly young woman who looks so different from his ethereal blond wife, Blanche.
After spending years in an unhappy marriage with Swynford, Katherine find herself free to be with John, who meanwhile also lost his spouse to the Black Death. With the passing of years and four children later - the Beaufort - the couple seems to have created a perfect harmony between them. But Katherine starts to doubt about her lover's affections and his constant absences seem to confirm her fears...
Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt are very human and that's what makes them so interesting. There were some moments where I wasn't very fond of John and his excessive ambition. He was so intense that I kept waiting for Katherine to get burned. Same for the young woman's overzealous religiousness but those are my modern opinions getting in the way, and I didn't have any troubles setting them aside for a while.
While this book is about John and Katherine relationship, I never felt that Anya Seton used any love story cliches. If some scenes between them are very romantic, others are painstakingly real. John marries for power and political alliances, like most of the men of his station. Katherine knows that her low birth makes it impossible for her to be a suitable spouse for the King's son. The only way they could be together was as lovers and, at first, they seem both content with the situation. The fact that many years later, John defies all social conventions and marries his long ago mistress makes me love even more this man who was always ready to fight for what he wanted.
Once again, the historical research is done carefully which will immediately seduce all history lovers. Seton will make you travel back in time gracefully never failing to hold your interest, showing you how remarkably talented she is. Her portrayal of the English 14th century is masterfully weaved with its court intrigues and machinations, giving us glimpses of crucial events as The Hundred Years War, the Peasant's Revolt or even the impact of the merciless Black Death. For several hours I truly felt I was living in Medieval England.
Katherine is definitely a book who deserves a special place among my keepers. I'm off to search for Anya Seton's entire back list.