Friday, June 11, 2010

The Power of Place and Story—Remembering Anya Seton by Brenda Rickman Vantrease

In my youth I enjoyed a genre of popular fiction called the Gothic novel. These novels essentially featured a female protagonist and a troubled but oh-so-appealing hero or sometimes anti-hero (after the tradition of Emily Bronte’s compelling character of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.) A foreboding setting such as a neglected mansion, isolated light house, derelict castle etc. provided the backdrop and added to the tension of these tales. They vibrated with brooding atmosphere, smoldering passions, unanswered desires, which usually were answered before novel’s end, and enough suspense to keep the reader up at night. Although this genre fell out of favor—probably because of a glut of inferior novels put out by publishing houses anxious to capitalize on a trend—the best of these I remember with fondness: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca and Anya Seton’s Dragonwyck. As much as the romance and danger that my young heart craved, I think I was attracted by the strong narrative arc of these stories and the heightened sense of place. These same characteristics also drew me as a reader—and later as a writer—to the historical novel.

Unlike the Gothic genre, the historical novel did not collapse into formula—or if it did, it offered enough variety—the historical mystery, the historical romance, the regency, the family saga, etc.—to keep many of us reading it and loving it. Of all the wonderful historical novelists whose works I devoured in my youth, Anya Seton stands out for me as a master story-teller whose eye for detail, both historical and natural, could deliver a setting firmly grounded in the history it explored. Her historical settings, both English and American, shaped the fate of fully developed characters who grew organically, as did her plots, from those settings. Anya Seton did not write costume dramas.

Katherine (1954) Seton’s richly imagined telling of the powerful love story between John of Gaunt and Katherine Swinford in Chaucerian England has been mentioned by some authors and readers as having kindled their interest in English history. By the time I discovered Seton, I was already very much a fan of England’s storied past. Green Darkness was my introduction to Anya Seton. While the time-slip convention of Green Darkness (1972) attracted me—I also have a fondness for fantasy—it was the sixteenth-century English setting that sucked me in. I went on to read The Winthrop Woman and Devil Water, but Green Darkness was always the story that I recommended whenever someone mentioned Anya Seton. It still remains my favorite. I never forgot the rich Tudor setting or the compelling story of two lovers caught in the crucible of the religious wars between the Catholics and the Protestants.

In recently rereading Green Darkness, I was struck again by Seton’s ability to evoke mood and place with only a few words: She sat down on the stump and looked towards Boston, then beyond it to the sea. Drifts of fog were blowing in, yet the damp air was very still. She felt, as so often, especially at gloaming as though something were going to happen, and yet it never did. This vast gray monotony oppressed her tonight. I envied also her ability to perfectly capture an historical character in a cameo as in this description of Mary Tudor, How small the royal lady was, Celia thought, . . . small and pinched-looking under a glitter of jewels and gold-threaded brocade. You’d never look at her twice if you saw her dressed in jersey. . . Her mouth was stubborn. Her eyes sunken and set in a frown of pain.

I was struck too that my own work shows a clear influence of having read Seton’s. I can see vestiges of her love of story, her fascination with just the right detail—either from history or nature—to advance her story, even some of her prose rhythms, in my own work. I would be flattered to think others might see it too.

I have a favorite quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, “I am a part of all that I have met.” I could not agree more. Whether we are talking about real adventures or literary ones, we absorb by a kind of osmosis those writers we read. Anya Seton died in 1990. It was about that time that I first began to transition from fiction reader to fiction writer. Maybe she was on to something in her ideas concerning reincarnation—at least to the extent that writers we read live on in us and, in some unique and mysterious way, become part of our writer’s voice. We are indeed a part of all that we have met. I am glad that I met Anya Seton.

Brenda Rickman Vantrease is the author of The Heretic’s Wife.


  1. Brenda, thank you so much for guest posting for us during Anya Seton season. I love that idea of being a part of all that we met. And now, I want to read Green Darkness even more than I did before!

  2. I've blogged about Anya Seton's Katherine many times. It kindled my interest in the 14th century and royal bastards - things I write about now, so many years later. I own all her books. I do think those whose favorite is Green Darkness tend to lean to paranormal and those who favor Katherine tend to prefer history. Just a hunch!

  3. Brenda, thanks again for your awesome post for The Anya Seton Season. I just finished reading my very first Seton novel, Avalon. I think I will read Katherine next.

  4. Katherine and Green Darkness are my favourite Setons but I have enjoyed all that I've read. I wish she had a huge backlist for me to discover...