I can't believe just how disappointing this novel was. I love well-done historical fiction, and I've heard this novel referred to as a classic historical novel. Even Alison Weir, one of my favorite non-fiction authors, had mentioned enjoying this novel when she was young, and had been inspired to write a non-fiction account of the main character's life. Unfortunately, I believe I missed the references calling this novel a classic romance. Also, it was written in the '50s, so I really did try to take that into account regarding the characterization, but it really just wasn't that good of a novel.
Katherine is beautiful. She has red hair, fair skin, luscious lips. Having been brought up in a convent, she is also rather innocent of the world. At the beginning of the novel, she is called back to the court by her older sister, who is engaged to Chaucer and serves as one of the queen's women. At this time, England is ruled by Edward III, son of Edward II and Isabella of France (Isabella led a rebellion against her husband), and he has several sons. His fourth son, John of Gaunt, is married to Blanche, but he takes notice of Katherine while she is at the court because he finds her rather annoying. This is supposedly the beginning of a great love story.
Now, everything in here has the potential for an interesting story: John of Gaunt was indeed the fourth son of Edward III, and Katherine would become his mistress. Eventually their descendants would find themselves on the throne of England through Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, the first Tudor king. In fact, John eventually even marries Katherine though she is below his station, thus legitimizing their children, who would all hold have positions of great power in the future. John's son, Henry of Bolingbroke, rebelled against his cousin, Richard II, and became Henry IV, leading to the events of the Wars of the Roses. Obviously, for Katherine to maintain the interest of John for such a long time given the difference in positions, she would have had to be incredibly beautiful and interesting. However, the only thing I really got from the book is that she was beautiful.
Now as far as the history goes, I think Seton does a good job of laying out the facts. The problem is she doesn't necessarily put them in a good context for the reader: the serfs decide to rebel in London, but Seton really doesn't do that good of a job of showing the political situation - she shows a series of events as they happened but leaves out the reasons. Katherine is completely clueless about what goes on around her, and honestly a bit of self entitled snob even though she herself acts above her station by being John's mistress. In the beginning she is married off to a knight, who is already a catch for her, but she just spends the whole time mooning around. When he leaves, she doesn't try to improve his badly run estates, and pretty much just sits around. I understand that she is sixteen, but please give me a competent heroine, not such a blank slate. Then again, I almost wanted to give Seton credit for not taking a historical figure and turning her into a modern day woman until I remembered this was written in the '50s. Was she actually giving a historically accurate presentation, or was this the idealized version of a '50s wife?
John of Gaunt goes from disliking Katherine to being desperately in love with her (all after his first wife, the pure and perfect Blanche, dies of the plague while cared for by saintly Katherine). There really wasn't anything that romantic about their relationship, and I disliked both characters. Given that it was written in the '50s, it should be no surprise to anyone that John of Gaunt is portrayed as having some serious Freudian issues. Katherine didn't become even half way likable till maybe the last 50-100 pages. Up until then, she is incredibly self-involved and egotistical but is supposed to be read as sweet and loving. For example, her daughter is unhappy with the match Katherine has chosen for her, but instead of showing the girl any sympathy, Katherine tells her she will do as told despite that fact that Katherine herself was forced into a marriage she didn't want, but then had the luck to end up with the man she did want. However, she is completely willing to sell her daughter out and doesn't even see the similarity in the situations. Additionally, the relationship between John and Katherine is so boring - they are in no way portrayed as partners - he doesn't discuss work or anything of the sort with her; he likes being around her because she is pretty and nice and it relaxes him. This is what great romance, passion and love are built on? The man defied convention and married her despite the differences in their statuses (granted she was a third marriage, he had done his duty already) - the relationship has to be anchored on something more than "she's pretty" to inspire that kind of gesture.
I wanted to read the fictional account before I read the non-fiction version but this novel left a bad taste in my mouth so I still haven't gotten around to reading Alison Weir's Mistress of the Monarchy. As a result, I can't say if it's better but given Weir's other books and how much I disliked this one, I would definitely recommend starting there if the topic is of interest. I think it really could make for an interesting story in other hands given the vague historical sketch I wrote above.