Jennifer Higham: historical fiction opinion piece


My favourite historical novel is undoubtedly Katherine, by Anya Seton. My mother has always been a great lover of history, and, although she didn’t study it, her enthusiasm for historical fiction and visiting historical houses had a huge impact on me as a child. She’s a great fan of this novel in particular (and I have a sneaking suspicion the heroine may have been the inspiration for my middle name) so as soon as I was old enough, probably 11 or 12, I read it eagerly. The novel details the life of Katherine de Rouet, beginning with her entrance at the court of Edward III, but mainly focusing on her relationship with John of Gaunt. The ultimate star crossed lovers of romantic historical fiction, Katherine and John’s relationship is followed over the years. Though it ebbs and flows, their association survives her unhappy marriage to Hugh Swynford, the death of John’s wife Blanche, the birth of their four illegitimate children and the political and military machinations of the court. When, after all this time, John defies convention and marries Katherine, despite her low birth, the reader who has followed their fates against the vivid backdrop of the Black Death and the Hundred Years War cannot help but feel moved. Although I went on to study history, I never chose to study this particular period, so, for better or most probably for worse, my associations of it are still very much shaped by Anya Seton!

Jennifer Higham is librarian for the Institute of Historical Research and History & Archaeology Subject Librarian for the Senate House library.

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About Matt Phillpott

I am an historian of early modern Britain and the Digital Resources Manager at the School of Advanced Study. My main area of interest is in the authentication of knowledge in early print, including religious, historical, and agricultural texts.

One thought on “Jennifer Higham: historical fiction opinion piece

  1. Numerous readers with whom I have spoken cite Katherine as one of their reasons for becoming hooked on historical fiction and it was one of the top 100 reads in BBC’s The Big Read a few years ago. I enjoyed the novel, although my personal preference among Anya Seton’s oeuvre is Avalon with part of its fascination being the setting of Viking age Greenland.
    What Seton does is bring the past to life in a very sensual way. You can touch, feel, smell, taste and hear the world she builds. I think that the novel has dated slightly with time and new research, but it is still very readable, and it still stands tall in the measure of fine historical fiction.

    I came to historical fiction via TV – I fell in love with the knight Thibaud in the programme Desert Crusader and that led me to begin reading historical fiction set in the medieval period and others. Sharon Penman’s Sunne in Splendor and Here Be Dragons blew me away. At the same time I discovered Roberta Gellis and her Roselynde Chronicles which showed me that it was possible to write intelligent, well researched historical romance with characters firmly of their time. I discovered and loved Cadfael – not for the whodunnit, but for the evocation of the 12th century. Then the incomparable Dorothy Dunnett, so in a league of her own. Mary Stewart, Mary Renault, George Shipway, Alfred Duggan, Norah Lofts. All were grist to my mill of thirsty reader and would be novelist learning her craft.


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