Like most lovers of historical fiction, I’ve read Anya Seton’s novel Katherine, about John of Gaunt’s mistress, and enjoyed it thoroughly, though in retrospect, I’m inclined to think it romanticized its hero and heroine quite a bit.
The historical Katherine is an enormously popular figure in some circles, and I confess I’m at a bit of loss to understand why. If the chroniclers can be believed, she and John conducted their adulterous relationship in a blatant manner calculated to humiliate Constance of Castile, John’s wife. John supposedly ended the relationship with Katherine after the Peasants’ Revolt, or at least put it on a more discreet footing, but after his quest for the throne of Castile ended, he took Katherine back into his household and took little interest in Constance, who lived her remaining years separately from John. The best thing that can be said of John’s conduct was that when Constance conveniently died in 1394, he gave her a lavish funeral and upon his own death provided for a chantry for her. As the beneficiary, financial and otherwise, of John’s blatant neglect of his wife, Katherine surely must be regarded as complicit in the matter.
In 1396, as readers of Katherine know, Gaunt married Katherine, who as his new duchess and the mother of his newly legitimated children conducted herself with credit. It would have hardly been to her advantage to conduct herself in any other fashion, however. She does seem to have been on good terms with the children of John’s first wife, Blanche, but it was not, of course, their mother who had been publicly slighted by John and Katherine.
All in all, then, I can’t see much in the historical Katherine to love or even to admire. Perhaps it’s the idealized picture painted by Anya Seton that appeals to so many people? Or perhaps I’m just a hopeless unromantic? Anyway, I’m eager to see what Alison Weir will make of Katherine in her soon-to-be-released biography of her.
On an entirely different note, I was thrilled to see that the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., is performing Marlowe’s Edward II this season! It’s the first time, as far as I know, that the play has been produced within driving distance of me, so I’ve bought my ticket and am eagerly waiting for the end of November to hurry up and get here. Ed rules!