Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Review: Mistress of the Monarchy, by Alison Weir

Like Alison Weir, I was first introduced to the story of Katherine Swynford through Anya Seton’s romanticized 1954 novel, Katherine. Weir’s biography is a pretty comprehensive look at this enigmatic, lesser-known medieval woman.

I have a love-hate relationship with Weir’s books: I loved The Six Wives of Henry VIII; liked Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, and Eleanor of Aquitaine; but detested Queen Isabella and Innocent Traitor (Weir doesn’t do fiction all that well). I put Mistress of the Monarchy in the “like for the most part” category.

Katherine Swynford was born Katherine de Roet in 1350, one of the daughters of Sir Paon de Roet. She then married Hugh Swynford, and spent time in the Lancastrian household as the governess to John of Gaunt’s children. Katherine’s affair with him probably began around the year 1372, and, after producing a number of illegitimate children, married John in 1396. Katherine is the ancestor of most of the royal houses of Europe, plus at least five American presidents. History has seen Katherine as bit of a homewrecker, but in this book, Weir attempts (and mostly succeeds) in portraying her in a more sympathetic light.

This biography of Katherine Swynford is, as with all of Weir’s books, meticulously researched. It’s less overtly feminist and partisan than some of her other biographies. Pay attention to the subtitle of this biography: the book is more about John of Gaunt than it is about Katherine (in fact, we don’t even get a physical description of Katherine until after one is given of John). We also get very detailed biographies of everyone who was related or connected to her, especially Geoffrey Chaucer, her brother-in-law. After finishing this book, I still didn’t have a concrete impression of what Katherine was really like. And, because so little is actually known about Katherine’s life, Weir makes an awful lot of assumptions here about what her subject “might,” “perhaps,” or “probably” have done/ thought/ felt.

However, Weir does a wonderful job bringing the details of the period to life. It’s an accessible, readable work of history that doesn’t get bogged down in pretentious language. For someone who doesn’t know medieval Latin or Norman French, Weir does an incredible job of interpreting her sources. And the style of this book is far more lively and engaging than other books written on the Lancasters that I’ve read. I look forward to reading what comes next from Weir (according to her website, the next book is about Anne Boleyn, though she may be re-treading familiar water with that one).

Also reviewed by: Tanzanite's Shelf


Amy @ Passages to the Past said...

I am reading Weir's The War of the Roses and liking it so far! I totally agree with you on Innocent Traitor - that was a tough one to finish. Did you read The Lady Elizabeth? That's one I couldn't finish at all.

Meghan said...

Thanks for this review - I've been wondering about this book and hadn't seen much posted about it yet. (For the record, many sources on this period for John of Gaunt were in English and even more are edited and translated. I know he has left us tons of household records in English, albeit ME. He comes up a lot in discussions of bastard feudalism because of his gigantic, well-recorded retinue. So it might not have been too difficult for her to use primary sources without the knowledge of certain languages, especially if she had help.) May be checking this one out of the library.

- Meghan @ Medieval Bookworm

Katherine said...

Weir admits in her author's note that she had help with translating her John of Gaunt sources, so I assumed that all her sources had had to be translated. Didn't know that they were written in English, though; very interesting!

Daphne said...

I'm looking forward to reading this one - even if it is mostly about John of Gaunt (I don't know of that many books about him either). I actually liked Weir's fiction books but couldn't stand her book on The Princes in the Tower.
She has an appearance scheduled at one of the local Denver bookstores in a couple of weeks. I'm going to try and go.

Dar said...

Thanks for the review Katherine. I've never read any of Weir but I do plan on it. I've heard many good things about her historical novels.

S. Krishna said...

This sounds interesting, I'm looking forward to reading the book. Thanks for the review!

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

Perhaps I'd like this one. I'm one of the few people out there was less than thrilled with Seyton's Katherine. Maybe some non-fiction about Swynford would suit me better.


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