The Scandalous Duchess by Anne O’Brien


It’s quite brave of anyone to write a historical novel about Katherine Swynford, given how well-known and well-loved the Anya Seton book is. This one’s pretty good, though – although it rather bizarrely starts with John of Gaunt approaching Katherine and then tells us that she (in her voice, in the first person)’s been keen on him for years. It just seems like an odd place to start!   We don’t actually get that much about the Peasants’ Revolt and all the machinations at court, because the focus is on Katherine and so the reader is with her, out of the way of it all, rather than middle of things – but that’s fair enough, because the book’s supposed to be about her.   And we do get some very interesting depictions of everyday life in a small-ish manor house, rather than at court.

The title is rather silly. “The Scandalous Duchess” sounds like one of those Regency-set Mills and Boon books which are always being offered for download on Kindle for 99p!   But presumably the idea is that that’s how she was seen, whereas the reader is, presumably, meant to see her as someone who actually very pious but considered the world well lost for love, etc etc etc. And who forgave John of Gaunt even after he publicly renounced their relationship for the good of the country, et al. It all sounds rather melodramatic, put like that, but it is actually what happened!   There are so many fascinating stories about royal mistresses, but obviously this one’s particularly interesting because this is the Beaufort line which gave Henry VII his claim to the throne.

Not all that much actually seems to happen. It’s more about feelings than events: the events seem to take place in the background. Or else we hear about them second-hand – especially John of Gaunt’s campaigns in Castile. It would be nice if someone wrote a book about Constanza of Castile, actually: she doesn’t come across very well in this book, but I think she was entitled to be narked that her husband was carrying on with one of her ladies in waiting, however “normal” that might have been at royal courts. And I was reading up earlier this year on both John of Gaunt’s campaigns in Galicia and Philippa of Lancaster’s marriage to Joao of Portugal, because I went to Galicia and Porto in June … er, which is totally irrelevant. But, yes, a book about Constanza would be nice. But this one’s about Katherine. It won’t be making “best ever historical novel” lists for decades to come, in the way that the Anya Seton book’s done, but it’s still well worth a read.

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