Nostalgia reading: Katherine by Anya Seton

For three weeks of the summer, my parents rented a beach house at Taurikura. There was no television and my Dad would return to the farm during the day, but we spent idyllic days swimming, messing about in the dinghy and reading. There was the daily walk to The Store with five cents of spending money each. An ice-cream in a cone was only 3 cents, and if you saved the change then every third day you could spend 5 cents on a comic and get a FruJu ice-block for 4 cents.

During the winter school holidays, I would often stay with my grandparents who owned the Feilding Motels. There was no need to hoard pocket money as I could usually wheedle an ice-cream from the stock Grandad sold in the motel office. My daily ritual was to walk up Kimbolton Road to the Post Office and collect the mail, then browse the books at Carthew’s Booksellers.

Photo credit: Feilding Library PHOTO_FDG_BUS_sh31.jpg

As a teenager, I devoured those gothic historical romances by Victoria Holt and royal intrigues by Jean Plaidy. Much later I discovered that these were pen-names for Eleanor Hibbert who wrote some 200 novels under various pseudonyms and could churn out 5000 words before lunch! Other favourite authors were Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, and Norah Lofts but my all-time favourite was Katherine by Anya Seton first published in 1954.

Sadly, after 110 years in business, Carthews closed in 1988, but I still have my (now dilapidated) copy of Katherine – with notable foresight I recorded the date of purchase as 4 May 1973. I’ve just unpacked all my books into my fabulous custom-made bookshelves and decided to read Katherine again to see if the magic still held.

This is the blurb:

Katherine is an epic novel of a love affair that changed history — that of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the ancestors of most of the British royal family. Set in the vibrant fourteenth century of Chaucer and the Black Death, the story features knights fighting in battle, serfs struggling in poverty, and the magnificent Plantagenets — Edward III, the Black Prince, and Richard II — who rule despotically over a court rotten with intrigue. Within this era of danger and romance, John of Gaunt, the king’s son, falls passionately in love with the already-married Katherine. Their affair persists through decades of war, adultery, murder, loneliness, and redemption. Anya Seton’s vivid rendering of the lives of the Duke and Duchess of Lancaster makes Katherine an unmistakable classic.

In short, yes, it still ticked all the boxes for me but I also realised how formative that book was for my interests later in life.  For my degree, I chose History papers such as The Black Death and other Plagues, and Medieval Women and wrote essays on “Examine the gendered nature of the relationship between food practice and mystical practice in the mysticism of Catherine of Siena” and “Explain the cultural preferences for virgin queens in the later middle ages”.

Kenilworth Castle, 1985

In 1985, one of the highlights of a trip to England was visiting the ruin of Kenilworth Castle. Forget about Robert Dudley’s unsuccessful attempt to woo Elizabeth I by staging a lavish pageant here in 1575 (said to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) – it was John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford that I’d come for. I was amazed that a building so old was still majestically atmospheric.

The House of Lancaster family tree

The family tree at the beginning of the book still fascinates me and considering some of my forebears are descended from the illegitimate son of Charles II and Nell Gwyn, I guess I could also claim these illustrious lovers as ancestors.

Katherine may not be completely historically accurate – if you want something more factual read Alison Weir’s Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess – but it feels authentic and brings a remarkable woman’s story to life.

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