Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review: Katherine - Anya Seton

That painting is a bit lusty, isn't it?
It's by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 
“I only know that from wherever it is that we're going there can be no turning back.” 

It is absolutely astounding to me that this hasn’t been made into a mini-series yet. It’s a fact that because of Katherine and her illegitimate children, the House of York (and Henry VII) and the Tudors and the Stuarts are not only all Plantagenets but Lancasters as well. So much for the fall of the house of Lancaster!

But for those of you who haven’t come for a summary of Who Dated Who: 1366, you’ll be pleased to hear that this novel is the most romantic biographical story I’ve ever read. It goes beyond the Bildungsroman, carrying us into Katherine’s late life, her time apart from her love and briefly touches on everyone she knew and encountered. If you’re a fan of historical fiction (romantic or otherwise) this is such a great book to read.

It’s only show of being dated is the (wonderfully) chaste descriptions of Katherine’s young passion and consequently of her (what else can you call it?) rape. The other is the dancing around of Richard II’s rumored homosexuality. All other rumors are given life, and considering how close she came to this infamous king... but it’s not important enough to the story in the end.

A little tedious was when the Young Katherine is looked upon with desire by every man she comes across, they all lust for her, in a mild way, and see the purity and innocence in her appearance. It is finally trumped when she meets a man, one whom many would scorn and shun for his appearance, that she knows what it is to be looked at with love by a man who does not desire her. In this same segment, where we meet Lady Julian, a woman who, like St. Hildegard von Bingen was, has not been officially canonized, but is still venerated as a saint. The religious aspects of this novel are well placed and wrought with care for the rest of the novel. As important as religion was then, and how pervasive it was, it cannot be for nought that Katherine’s growth happens with the aid of priests and monks, saints and nuns. Equally so for the revolts of the Lollards and the heretics; the demands of an unruly bourgeois who despise the wanton greed of the bishops and cardinals; this was also the time of the schism of the church, where there were two popes in the world.

Phillipa Gregory (famously the author of several novels about the medieval british royals) gives this book a very pointed introduction on the differences of romance fiction and historical fiction. While this book bears a resemblance to the stories of Tristan and Iseult, Arthur and Guinevere, her point is valid, Katherine’s life, while not shaping landscapes directly, mostly of childrearing and observation, did have a marked impact on British history. She’s often strongly admonished in the classic history texts, her role as paramour and later the First Lady of England, has her brandished as an interloper as notorious as Alice Perrers. 

These contrasts of intent, greed versus love, and marriage versus love, are common to historical as well as medieval contemporary stories that explore a world obsessed with true love and empires built by men. The violence that intersperses the sanity and the abandon that pierces through the pious times without plague frame the troubles of Katherine’s life, even this fictionalized account of it. She lives long and sees much, and enjoys the width and breadth of what her world had to offer, even as unhappy as some of it was. I know that much of Katherine’s life is unknown, but there is something very noble about this woman nonetheless, her life is important, even if we don’t know the half of it.

Kudos to Geoffrey Chaucer, by the way, for writing absolutely nothing about his sister-in-law.

I can't believe I  haven't said anything about the fantastic narration! Looking over lines of passages from the book, it sounds so much more classical and stodgy than it did when read by the lovely and talented Wanda McCaddon. She's apparently narrated a couple other classics, historicals and romances: I'm on it!

500pp. Fawcett Crest Books. 1954. 
23:43. Tantor Media. 25 Mar. 2011.

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