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.