This assignment is both an absolute joy and something of a challenge. Hodder have re-packaged Anya Seton’s classic under their ‘Hodder Great Reads’ imprint, and what better choice? For Katherine is one of the great reads, indeed, one of the great novels, of the twentieth century. Originally published in 1954, it has become an ur-text of modern historical romance, scarcely ever out of print and running to dozens of editions. I doubt there are many Society members who have not read Katherine. Most of us probably have passages of it engraved on our hearts.
But for those of you who are still Katherine virgins, here is a summary of the plot. In 1366, Katherine Swynford travels to the court of Edward III to be married. There she meets and falls in love with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and son of the king, himself also married. Through the vicissitudes of war, plague and infidelities both obligatory and voluntary, and despite their families, their love survives. Late in life, they are finally free to marry and legitimise their bastard children. Their eldest son, John, was the grandfather of Henry VII. Oh, and I almost forgot, Katherine’s sister, Philippa, was the wife of one Geoffrey Chaucer.
As her own foreword, reprinted here, attests, Anya Seton researched her story meticulously, and it is no less moving or romantic for its adherence to the facts of these two well-documented lives. Seton’s direct, unadorned prose both survives the test of time and serves to heighten the poignancy of her tale.
Philippa Gregory contributed a foreword to a previous reissue of Katherine, and if I have any criticism of this well-packaged Hodder Great Reads edition, it is that a foreword by a contemporary historical romancer would have been a welcome inclusion. (Gregory’s foreword is reprinted in the current US edition. –ed.)