This was the one nonfiction book I tackled along with a lot of great novels this summer — a biography of Katherine Swynford, mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and father of Henry IV. I read Anya Seton’s historical novel Katherine, about Katherine Swynford, years ago. So did Alison Weir, and she pays tribute to the novel in this biography, in which she does an impressive job of unearthing information about a woman on whom there is very little direct historical record.
Like many medieval women (and women of other eras) Katherine Swynford is known to us only because of her connection to a famous man, John of Gaunt, and references to her are found, often in passing, in historical documents pertaining to him. This provides an intriguing challenge for the biographer, who has to piece together a picture of her life from admittedly sketchy sources. While the book was interesting in that way, it vividly illustrated for me why I prefer reading historical fiction to straight biography, especially when as little is known about the subject as in this case.
In writing about Katherine, Weir has to look at things like household records of expenditure, and conclude that she may have been living at such-and-such a place in a particular year because of this record, and then suggest reasons why she might have been there. Real history has an awful lot of “mights,” “could haves,” and “it may perhaps be thats.” Whereas a novelist can simply take the hard work that a real historian like Weir has done and construct a plausible story in which her heroine is living in a particular castle at a particular time, and construct motives and a chain of events that lead to her being there. Obviously, without real biographies, historical novelists would have nothing to work with, but mostly I still find it more fun to read historical fiction, despite its limitations.
Maybe Alison Weir finds real history a bit restrictive too, as she’s taken up writing historical fiction along with her biographies. I followed Mistress of the Monarchy with a novel by Weir … and you can find out what I thought about that in my next review.