It was in the school library on a somnolent Sydney summer afternoon that I first met her. A passionate, but bookish and rather inarticulate child, I had recently discovered romantic novels and had devoured Daphne du Maurier, Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and Mary Stewart. I loved them all, but meeting Anya Seton’s Katherine, as she set out in that ‘tender green time of April’ on a journey that was to take her from sheltered convent girl to controversial great lady, was the greatest delight of all.
Though Katherine de Roet, later Swynford, was, I was sure, infinitely more beautiful and gifted than me, and though she lived in such a different time and place, I identified with her instantly, and with the book in which she lived and breathed with such intensity. I was just about Katherine’s age – nearly 16 – and I too had spent years in a convent, albeit a convent school. I was itching to go out into the world and, especially, to fall in love. The gap of six hundred years between us seemed meaningless. I was with Katherine every step of the way, from her first introduction to the royal court, where she meets the man who will forever change her life, though she does not yet know it. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, is the King’s dazzling third son. He and Katherine do not fall in love at first sight, but love is kindled between them, and it becomes a passion as unstoppable as it is overwhelming, one that will bring in its train not just delight, but also murder, madness and exile.
Anya Seton’s evocation of that grand passion – particularly in the early stages of the affair, when Katherine and John spend several enchanted days in the remote castle of La Teste, in Les Landes – was so thrilling that I must have worn out those pages rereading them, savouring each time that intoxicating mixture of languor and excitement, sex and romance, poetry and passion. This is not an uncommon reaction; lots of readers, and not only female ones, have felt
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