Sunday, June 20, 2010

To Katherine on her Fiftieth Anniversary by Tamara Mazzei

-originally published in The Historical Novels Review Magazine of the Historical Novel Society (HNS) and at Trivium Publishing.

Katherine, the story of the mistress and later, the wife of John of Gaunt, was the sixth of the ten popular novels* written by Anya Seton. All of Seton’s novels were best sellers, yet in the fifty years since its original publication, Katherine stands apart, showing the longevity of a classic. This is illustrated most clearly by the book’s inclusion in the listing of the top 100 favorite books in the BBC Big Read (2003).

I first read Katherine as a teenager—around the time of her 25th anniversary. I was not yet the devoted lover of historical fiction that I would later become, but even then, I was captivated. Twenty-five years later, I’m still captivated, so much so that I’ve tried on more than one occasion to learn more about the “real” Katherine Swynford.

As Seton pointed out in her author’s note, historical interest in Katherine Swynford, of which there isn’t much, has mainly centered around her connections to Geoffrey Chaucer, who is said to have married Katherine’s sister Philippa, and to the legitimation of the children she had with John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, prior to their marriage.

In the intervening years since the publication of Katherine, little has changed. Apart from a pamphlet by Anthony Goodman published by Lincoln Cathedral Publications in 1994, Katherine Swynford is as much an enigma today as she was when Seton was writing. The tide of feminist scholarship that might have brought more information to light, instead, turned away from scholarly biographies, leaving Anya Seton’s portrayal of Katherine as the most comprehensive to date. University of Huddersfield undergraduate Jeannette Lucraft, in a persuasive article called “Missing From History,” published in History Today, argues that Katherine Swynford is deserving of more attention by historians (11). Lucraft’s article, which won a joint Royal Historical Society and History Today prize, once again sparked my interest in Katherine: both the real one and the fictional one created by Anya Seton.

There are traces of the real Katherine in castle ruins, archives, and chronicles, but my present interest lies more in the realm of the “why” than of the “where” or the “when.” Specifically I wished to understand the reasons for which Seton selected Katherine Swynford as the subject for a novel, the reasons why she has never been of interest to historians, and finally, the reasons why her story has continued to hold so much resonance for generations of readers.

Why Katherine Swynford?

It’s easy to speculate why Seton chose Katherine as the subject for a novel. As the mistress, and then the wife of the Duke of Lancaster, Katherine played an important role in the lead-up to the Wars of the Roses; she lived in interesting times and little had been written about her. More importantly, Katherine’s story had a romantic conclusion in her marriage to John of Gaunt—Seton admitted herself that she needed to make money—a romantic story sells books! It’s also possible that Seton’s rather unconventional upbringing played a role in her choice of subject.

Anya Seton was the only child of naturalist, artist, and author Ernest Thompson Seton (Wild Animals I Have Known) and travel author Grace Gallatin (A Woman Tenderfoot in the Rockies, Nimrod’s Wife). Ernest was the co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America, the founder of the Woodcraft League, and with Grace, the co-founder of the organization later known as the Campfire Girls, as well as a prolific artist and writer of nature stories (Austin 223). Ernest, born in Durham England in 1860, emigrated to Canada in 1866 with his parents, though he returned to England in 1879 to study at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. He met Anya’s mother on a later journey; on a ship bound for Paris, where he intended to continue his art studies at the Julian Academy. Grace was the daughter of wealthy socialite Clemenzie Rhodes Gallatin, who moved from California to New York City following a divorce from Grace’s father. A large part of Grace’s childhood was spent in travels with her mother, and throughout her life she continued to travel in much the same way. Ernest Thompson Seton and Grace Gallatin were married in 1896 (Gale 327). In between their travels, they made their home in the northeastern United States, primarily in Connecticut. Their daughter Ann (Anya) was born in 1904 (Allen 147).

Anya’s unconventional childhood was not simply due to the background of her parents; it was also influenced by their lifestyle as she was growing up. In addition to his writing, art shows, and nature studies, her father designed several large, impressive homes, requiring the family to move house frequently. During World War I, Anya’s mother took an ambulance corps to France, leaving Anya with governesses when her father was away.

Rather than continuing her education, nineteen-year-old Anya married Rhodes scholar Charles Cottier; they spent the first two years of their marriage in England while he completed his studies at Oxford (Allen 205). After five years of marriage and two children, Seton and Cottier divorced. In 1930, Anya married again, this time to investment banker Hamilton Chase. Around the time of Anya’s second marriage, her parents separated. Her father sold his East Coast properties and moved to New Mexico with the woman who had been his secretary for more than ten years. Ernest Thompson Seton married his former secretary, Julia Moss Buttree, in 1935, after his divorce from Anya’s mother was finalized (Allen 223). Three years later, they adopted a daughter, Beulah; he then declared that Beulah would be the sole heir to his considerable property. Disinherited and married to an investment banker in the middle of the Great Depression, the stage was set for Anya Seton Chase to embark on a new career: author.

Anya’s first book, My Theodosia, the tragic story of Aaron Burr’s daughter, was published in 1941. She continued this success with a string of gothic romances: Dragonwyck in 1944, The Turquoise in 1946, The Hearth and the Eagle in 1948, and Foxfire in 1951. She returned to a more biographical format with the publication of Katherine in 1954.

The lives of her chosen heroines were somewhat tragic, often involving divorce and forbidden love, in some ways echoing the life of Seton herself, and the lives of her parents. It would not have been surprising if Seton had been attracted to the character of Katherine Swynford because her story had a “happy” ending.

Why Not Katherine Swynford?

I suspect that the same factors that inspired Anya Seton to write about Katherine Swynford may also be responsible for removing Katherine as a subject for further historical study. The problem? Romance. Katherine’s story had a happy ending; she was dismissed as a romance novel stereotype. Comments by popular culture and literature professor Kay Mussell, who used Seton’s Katherine as an example of the historical biography version of a romance, illustrates this attitude:

Romances are primarily concerned with the process of mate selection and, secondarily, with those domestic activities—nurturing and homemaking—traditionally assigned to women in Western culture (6).

Many romantic biographies feature the marriages or illicit affairs of royalty. In addition, plots include anachronistic ideas about marriage--for example, voluntary choice of mate—that conflict with conventional historical interpretations (50).

Though it’s worth noting that Mussell has since changed many of her views on romance novels, her views on “anachronistic ideas about marriage” are repeated frequently, yet while it cannot be generalized across society, there is evidence that women did sometimes choose (or reject) a mate. One example of this (among many) is the case of Margery Paston, who, to the dismay of her parents, married the family bailiff in a clandestine ceremony in 1469. Margery’s family tried to intervene, but in the end, the marriage stood. The circumstances of Katherine’s life were not typical, but neither were they stereotypical—unless they were the origins of the stereotype itself!

Dubbed a strumpet by chroniclers of her own day, and more recently, a stereotypical romance-novel heroine, is it any wonder Katherine Swynford’s life has not been studied in more detail?

Why Seton’s Katherine?

My final question, “Why has Katherine showed such staying power?” is answered easily by reading the comments posted on various websites that feature book reviews. Katherine has not only stood the test of time (with no advertising!), it meets the standard of excellence in fiction, historical and otherwise. Though parts of the narrative show gothic overtones, and others have the rosy glow of the variety of romance that was popular in 1954, Seton’s prose transcends formula. Considering the lack of readily available sources, Seton’s research is really quite impressive, and more importantly, her conception of the major characters allows us to find value in Katherine’s role, leaving us to feel that we have seen the world through Katherine’s eyes; to feel that we can truly appreciate the trials of Katherine’s life; to feel that Katherine is not, after all, “missing from history.”

* Seton also wrote several novels for young adults—see below.


  • Anderson, Allen, H. The Chief: Ernest Thompson Seton and the Changing West. 1st ed. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1986.

  • Austin, Mary Hunter. Literary America, 1903-1934: The Mary Austin Letters. Ed. T. Matthews Pearce. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.

  • Gale, Robert L. The Gay Nineties in America: A Cultural Dictionary of the 1890s. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.

  • Lucraft, Jeannette. "Missing from History: Jeannette Lucraft Recovers the Identity and Reputation of the Remarkable Katherine Swynford," History Today, Vol. 52, May 2002, pp. 11-17.

  • Mussell, Kay. Fantasy and Reconciliation: Contemporary Formulas of Women's Romance Fiction. Greenwood Press, 1984.

Books By Anya Seton

NOTE: Chicago Review Press has reissued many of Seton's books since the original publication of this article. The following list of books is included for reference only.

My Theodosia, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1941.
Dragonwyck, Houghton, 1944.
The Turquoise, Houghton, 1946.
The Hearth and the Eagle, Houghton, 1948.
Foxfire, Houghton, 1951.
Katherine, Houghton, 1954.
The Winthrop Woman, Houghton, 1958.
Devil Water, Houghton, 1962.
Avalon, Houghton, 1965.
Green Darkness, Houghton, 1973.

Young Adult Books

The Mistletoe and Sword: A Story of Roman Britain, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1955.
Washington Irving, illustrated by Harve Stein, Houghton, 1960.
Smouldering Fires, Doubleday, 1975.


  1. I read "Katherine" in high school inspired by a wonderful English teacher who told us that good historical fiction was important to read- it gave us good literature and a taste of history at the same time. While I have not read it again in the 40+ years since Sister introduced me to a long list of her preferred authors, I still remember it.

    Thanks for a most interesting article!

  2. I read "Katherine" for the first time when I was fifteen. I knew a little bit about the period because I loved medieval times, and was attracted to anything with a medieval subject. Nobody told me to read it; I picked it up on my own. But from then on, I dreamed of writing a novel set in medieval England, and eventually I started writing it, after doing a lot of research on the period I was omterested om. amd combining it with some science fiction elements(a genre whicjh I've also loved from childhood onward. It's set in an earlier period, and is what I call "romantc" science fiction for lack of any other way to descr8be it. The heroine is very much like Katherine in some ways, down ht her red hair, though she's a "science fiction" character. There are other elements of similarity at the end, including the happy-ever-after ending. I refuse to write "downer" endings! In any case, the book was a huge influence on me. Alas, the last time I read "Katherine" it didn't stand up so well, IMO, because she seemed too much like a sweet 1950's housewife type. And the real Katherine Swynford was apparently anything but. Nevertheless, if I hadn't read the book, and reread it several times, I would probably not be writing what I"m writing today.

  3. Now this was a very interesting post! I've never read any of Anya Seton's books, but I loved reading about her real life. I loved "Wild Animals I Have Known" as a child and was disappointed to learn that Anya's father and the author was such a jerk! I was impressed and inspired by Anya's accomplishments.

  4. Thanks for this wonderful article Tamara. I have read Katherine about 10 years ago and I guess a reread is definitely in order by now...

  5. Long-time lurker, first-time poster, lover of KATHERINE since I first read it in the early 1970s (I still have the beat-up paperback I first read, but I was able to snag a hardback copy for $1 at a Friends of the Library book sale a few years ago). I don't have a copy at hand right now, but I seem to recall in the afterword of KATHERINE, Anya Seton says that she became interested in Katherine Swynford when she read a reference to her in Marjorie Chute's biography of Geoffrey Chaucer (which was published in 1947, so Seton did about six years of research and writing prior to publishing KATHERINE).

    One thing I rarely see mentioned is the character of Hawise, Katherine's loyal friend and, later, maid. She's a wonderful character in her own right: a great sense of humor, good-naturedly bawdy, honest, and a devoted friend.

  6. Hi Deb, welcome to HT!

    That's really interesting. I'll have to check my copy to see if it includes that mention. And now I'm curious about that Marjorie Chute biography...