Katherine, by Anya Seton, has been on my To-Be-Read shelves for year, ever since a friend recommended it so strongly that I couldn't not get a copy. It took me until this year and the wonderful TBR Pile Challenge for me to get around to reading it. The bonus is that it is all about the roots of the War of the Roses, my current passion since I'm loving The White Queen and anticipating The Hollow Crown.
Katherine is Katherine Swynford, the last wife of John of Gaunt (1st Duke of Lancaster and 3rd surviving son of Edward III) and his mistress for many years before he was finally able to marry her. She is the mother of four of his children, the Beauforts, whom his nephew, Richard II, legitimized and who ultimately spawned Henry VII.
One of the many things I loved about this book is that it provides Katherine's whole story, from the time she leaves the convent as a young girl, being summoned to the court of Edward III, where her sister is a lady-in-waiting to the queen, to when she meets John for the first time, and on, through their highs and lows. So often, authors will start their story of a person at the end and then flashback, which is actually not my favorite way to hear about a life.
I totally got the attraction and love between Katherine and John, and I thought Seton did a masterful job of weaving in interesting facts about life in medieval times without showing off. The details of daily living, court politics, battles, and historic events was seamless and natural. I found Katherine and John to be wonderful characters--definitely medieval in who they were and what they expected from life but sympathetic and relevent for a modern reader. So often in historical fiction, the heroines are portrayed as rebelling against their society, ala 1960's era feminists, and it's jarring.
Of all the many characters in the book, however, one of my favorites, besides Katherine and John, was Geoffrey Chaucer. I just loved his humor, his compassion, his canny observation of people, and his love of reading and writing. I was just thinking that he would make a great subject for a biographical novel, and Googled to see it Anya Seton thought so too. Apparently not, but she has a dozen or so other titles that look worth getting, particularly Green Darkness. Here's a bit about it from an article on Seton that I found in The Austin Chronicle:
Who else would take the horrific discovery of a girl walled up alive in an English castle and recast it as a tragic time-travel romance between a monk and a noble's bastard daughter?
Sound good? I think so too!
Katherine was a marvelous "biographical novel," to use Seton's term for her genre of fiction--fully realized characters who had real emotions and motivations I could understand and relate to, a rich cast of interesting characters, some historical and some imagined, a layered, realistic medieval world, and great writing. It really hardly gets any better than this!
Katherine, of course, qualifies as part of the Historical Fiction challenge as well as the TBR Pile Challenge.