historical fiction, historical women: a two-fer post

Today, a “combined author” post: Jan Westcott’s The Queen’s Grace, about Catherine Parr1, and Anya Seton’s Katherine, about Katherine Swynford. Appropriate, I suppose, as the two women were related.

In many ways, The Queen’s Grace is an easier book to describe/review, not least because Parr is the better known of the two women, as she was a properly crowned Queen of a reasonably well known King. Women weren’t as important then as now, but Queens tend to appear in the surviving records much more often than mere mistresses. It doesn’t hurt that Parr was far better educated than Swynford, so there are more of her own writings left, in addition to the larger number of references in other documents of the time. Swynford would have been a footnote in history if it were not for her (clears throat) alliance with John of Gaunt; through this alliance, she became the ‘mother of kings’, as their son John was the great-grandfather of Henry VII/Tudor. This is not to say, alas, that I liked The Queen’s Grace quite as much as Katherine. I did enjoy The Queen’s Grace, mind. To say “I finished it.” sounds like damning with faint praise, but then consider that I refuse to finish books that I can’t stand2; a better description would be “I wouldn’t mind acquiring a copy for myself.”

The Queen’s Grace is an unabashed romance; it centers all but exclusively on Parr’s own life and feelings, with comparatively little information on current events and political machinations; other characters and historical figures appear only as they interact with Kathryn herself. It’s written in third person, but is primarily from Kathryn’s viewpoint, and has comparatively little description. The language is archaic–the characters tend to ‘thee and thou’ a great deal–which can be offputting for modern readers; the outdated writing style, however, is no more than to be expected, given the book was written in 19593. As it happens, I like this older writing style; most modern fiction, genre and mainstream alike, leaves me cold. I can see reading The Queen’s Grace while tucked up in bed recovering from the flu, along with a box of tissues and a bag of treats. It was a quick read for me, even considering its length, and I didn’t have to think too hard about the plot points, but it was just engaging enough to keep me interested.

Overall, I’d recommend this book for people who already know a bit about the time period, as it might be a bit confusing otherwise, though I know people who’ve been inspired to learn more about the period as a result of reading it!

Katherine was written five years earlier than The Queen’s Grace, so, not surprisingly, Seton’s writing style is similar to Westcott’s in being a product of its time. Seton, however, includes much more detail in her descriptions; I can envision the various castles and halls in which Katherine lives, while I recall only the names of Parr’s residences. It is largely from Katherine’s perspective, but with occasional forays into other characters’ viewpoints, and includes historical background. There are some inaccuracies in Katherine, such as the age at which she was first married and the number of children she had with Hugh Swynford4, but overall it’s well done, given the lack of information about her early life prior to her relationship with John of Gaunt. For an accurate well written biography of Katherine, try Alison Weir’s Mistress of the Monarchy, but if you’re willing to concede a certain amount of artistic license and filling in the blanks, Katherine is a good place to start.

If you liked Westcott’s The Queen’s Grace, I think you might like Seton’s books…and the latter have the advantage of being easier to find these days. Alas. (for Westcott fans).

1she of the “survived” portion of the “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” mnemonic about Henry VIII’s wives, for the link-phobic; in the book, her name is spelled Kathryn
2books that I’m reading for pleasure, that is…
3I apologize for not being able to pin this latter down more precisely; I’m not a professional reviewer or literature scholar, I just read a lot.
4John of Gaunt’s life and offspring are better documented


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