The latest year-based club sponsored by Simon and Karen is the 1954 Club! As usual, in this first post for the club, there are several books published in 1954 that I have already reviewed, so here they are:
- Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
- The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson
- The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer
- The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith
Actually, I thought there were a lot more, but it turns out they were books I had read previous to my starting my blog, books like Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart, The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkein, Mary Anne by Daphne Du Maurier, and don’t let’s forget Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P. G. Wodehouse.
Katherine is the first book I read for the club. It is a highly romanticized tale of Katherine Swynford, the mistress for many years of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and second son of Edward III, who eventually married her and legitimized their children.
In 1366, Katherine de Roet leaves the convent where she has been raised to join her sister Philippa at court. Philippa is to marry Geoffrey Chaucer and hopes to find a husband for her sister. Soon, one appears, for Katherine is astonishingly beautiful. She is offered a marriage she couldn’t normally expect to Sir Hugh Swynford, a landed knight who is infatuated with her. She is repelled by him, but she has no say in her marriage.
Hugh is the Duke of Lancaster’s man, and Katherine finds Duchess Blanche to be a beautiful and kind woman. She is entranced by the Duchess, but she finds herself uncomfortably attracted to the Duke.
Hugh takes Katherine home to their estate, which is meager and poorly run, and basically leaves her there pregnant while he goes off to war, the Duke being determined to capture Castile and rule it. The novel details her life, and after the deaths of both their spouses, their love affair.
Seton says in the beginning of the book that she used nothing but historical fact for her story. Yet, I wasn’t quite buying it. It seems clear that Katherine and the Duke were seriously attached, but Seton depicts Katherine as sweet and naïve, without ambition. She probably had to in 1954, to legitimize having an adultress (as Katherine would have been viewed then) as a heroine. I’m willing to bet that a woman who rose from almost nothing in that age to be the second highest woman in England had some ambition. And more power to her.
The novel shows a great deal of knowledge of medieval customs, dress, and cuisine. Still, it’s so highly romanticized that I found it a little hard to take at times. What it accomplished for me was a desire to read about Swynford from a reputable biography.