The Scandalous Duchess
It is 1372. The young widow Lady Katherine Swynford is facing destitution after the death of her husband. She appeals to John Plantagenet, Duke of Lancaster, for a position in his household. But his offer is not one of servant or maid: it is to become his mistress. Although Katherine wrestles with her conscience, she soon gives in to her desire for John. The novel chronicles the challenges and triumphs of their 25-year love affair.
Though many novelists would balk at attempting a story on this scale, it is clear that O’Brien approaches it with relish. Her writing is highly evocative of the time period, and her portrayal of the characters of Katherine and John is skilful. They are at times highly conflicted about their affair, and it is a relationship that had serious implications for Katherine’s reputation and happiness. We really feel her despair at her position but grow to admire her strength and courage in how she deals with it. John’s wife, Constanza, is also well drawn, and the scenes where she tries to assert her position are tense and bitter.
Rumours turn to open accusations when the affair is made public. Katherine has to face the loss of her lover as well as the dangers of revolt. The reader is kept guessing as to whether she will find lasting happiness with John. The conclusion is gentle, moving and satisfying. O’Brien has produced an epic tale of love and loss which is to be admired.