Monday, September 26, 2011
This classic romance novel tells the true story of the 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 14th 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 ruled 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 well-documented affair and love persist through decades of war, adultery, murder, loneliness, and redemption. This epic novel of conflict, cruelty, and untamable love has become a classic since its first publication in 1954.
I simply loved this book! Loved, loved, loved it!
I put off reading it for a long time, since I felt it was going to be a bit boring and dated (it was written in 1954) and the only other book I'd read by Seton didn't thrill me (Green Darkness). How wrong could I be? This was not dry or dull at all, and it was especially riveting on audio! It's the real-life romantic story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt who was the Duke of Lancaster in the fourteenth century. The two of them had a non-marital relationship for over 25 years before they finally married.
Handsome and dashing, John was married at the time he and Katherine first meet. Katherine, convent schooled, is a young and naive girl, new to court. There is much drama and excitement for Katherine upon first meeting John and his wife, Blanche at the king's court. Her sister (who is married to Geoffrey Chaucer) is older and more experienced at court and is insistent that Katherine try to make a good marriage. She winds up marrying a minor lord, Hugh Swynford, who falls for her beauty at first sight. Theirs is not a particularly happy marriage, but they have two children and Katherine is a dutiful, albeit neglected wife. Her husband is a knight and away fighting under the Duke for most of the time. Hugh serves under the Duke of Lancaster and thus John and Katherine meet from time to time. Though married, he has trouble handling the strong feelings that crop up whenever he is around the guileless Katherine. There is a magnetism between the two that is hard to ignore.
Eventually, John's duchess, Blanche, dies from the plague. Katherine, married to Hugh, is still a temptation to him. She is unaware of his feelings, but not for much longer. He comes to her and makes it plain that he wants her, yet she makes it clear that it is impossible. Katherine refuses to dishonor her husband, no matter how tempting John is. She has feelings for him, but she will not betray her husband and father to her two children.
Irony of ironies, Katherine's husband dies unexpectedly from a stomach ailment (he is really poisoned by one of John's loyal retainers, though Katherine and John believe it to be from a sudden illness). John's longing for Katherine has never ceased. He has continued to dream of her, worshiping her from afar. Finally, now that she is a widow, he has his chance. But he's betrothed to another! Grr! Because of his position as Duke of Lancaster, he is expected to make a great political match. A betrothal to the Infanta Constance of Castile is arranged so that one day he will become the King of Castile. This is no love match, it's strictly political. Yes, despite his impending nuptials, John finds he cannot resist Katherine and her new found freedom. Katherine is unaware of all of this. She is too good, in fact, it's hard to believe she was such a saint. She hasn't a selfish bone in her body and barely an ounce of vanity. She is honest and true, which makes it all the more shocking and unlikely that she actually agrees to become the mistress of John of Gaunt! How does this come about, you ask?
Before his wedding to Constance, John cannot resist the opportunity to carry Katherine off. Declaring his love for her, she is stunned, joyous and overwhelmed, all at the same time. Without much protestation, she submits to his desires and the two of them revel in their love for one another for several weeks. They become true soul mates, despite the fact he goes ahead and marries Constance. Katherine becomes his mistress for nearly 25 years and bears him several children. I'm abbreviating what is a wonderful, dramatic and history filled narrative of their tempestuous relationship. During this time, there is a rift between them and they are separated for several years. Katherine has discovered the truth about how her husband Hugh died and blames herself. She believes she is responsible for the death of her daughter as well (from Hugh) and repents by giving up the Duke. Yet, their love never really dies. Several years later, when John's wife dies, he returns to Katherine and will not take no for an answer. They're both older and time is short. He will not live without her any longer (how romantic!) At last, he is able to marry her and make her his duchess. The Pope legitimizes their children so they are no longer looked on as bastards (the first time this had ever happened in history!) I wish Katherine and John had been able to have more than just four years together as man and wife before his death, but at least they had something.
One of the best treats about this book is the way we get inside both John and Katherine's heads. Much of John's early life was marred by the suspicion that he was not truly his father's son. His father was King Edward III of England and when John was a young boy, a slanderous rumor put the seed of doubt in his head that continues to haunt him as an adult. This burden plays a large part in Katherine. Katherine's story is bittersweet for the most part, living most of her life as John's mistress. Yet I was swept up in the wonderful historical aspect of it as well as it's just a good story - and true!
On audio, this was a pleasure. I highly recommend it. Wanda McCaddon does a fabulous job as narrator. I was already familiar with her voice from her narration of Mary, Queen of Scots by Margaret George (under the name of Donada Peters). She is even better in Katherine. I so identified with Katherine and her ups and downs. It couldn't have been easy for her all those years as John's mistress. But their love held them together. The history that takes place is not a monumental time in the history books, but the plague that kills Blanche as well as the Peasant's Revolt in 1381 are both depicted in graphic detail. Through the whole book you feel like "you are there." The research is tops and I highly recommend that you read the complete forward by the author because it was very interesting and tells how she wrote this book and her thoughts on Katherine and John's relationship and the influences on both of them during this time in history.
A great read (or listen, in my case) and now I know why the story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt is listed as one of the all time great romances in history with a truly happy ever after ending. A worthwhile book, don't miss it!