Historical Musings #37: Reading Anya Seton

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. Last month, I looked at the work of Elizabeth Chadwick; this month it’s the turn of another historical fiction author: Anya Seton.

Anya Seton was the pseudonym of Ann Seton Chase, an American author born in Manhattan in 1904. She died in 1990 aged eighty-six, having written twelve novels, some of which were bestsellers and some which were adapted for film.

I have read six Anya Seton novels, although she was an author I discovered years before I started my blog, so I don’t have reviews to link to for most of these books.

Katherine (1954)

This is probably Seton’s most famous novel. It was my first introduction to her work and, in fact, I think it was the first book I read that dealt with real historical figures rather than fictional characters in a historical setting. The Katherine of the title is Katherine Swynford, mistress of Edward III’s son John of Gaunt. The descendants of Katherine and John were the Beauforts, who included Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII. I thought it was a wonderfully moving story and a vivid portrayal of 14th century England – the world of Edward III and Richard II, the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt, Geoffrey Chaucer and Julian of Norwich.

Green Darkness (1972)

Green Darkness was the second Anya Seton novel I read and, although I enjoyed some aspects of it, I thought it was slightly disappointing after Katherine. It’s a reincarnation story about a present day (1960s) woman who revisits her former life in Tudor England, during which she lived with the wealthy Browne family and fell in love with the family chaplain. The 16th century romance didn’t really work for me but I did like the setting, particularly the descriptions of the manor house, Ightham Mote.

The Winthrop Woman (1958)

This was another one I loved. It tells the story of Elizabeth Fones, a young Puritan woman who, in the 17th century, marries into the family of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. I can’t remember very much else about this book now, but I did find it interesting because I had never read anything about this period of American history before.

Avalon (1965)

Avalon is my least favourite of the Anya Seton books I’ve read, although that could be because, at the time when I read it, the setting didn’t particularly interest me as I preferred reading about later periods. The story takes place in the 10th century and follows the adventures of Rumon, a nobleman from Provence who is shipwrecked off the coast of Cornwall, and Merewyn, a Cornish girl who believes she is a descendant of King Arthur. Maybe I’ll try reading this book again one day to see if my opinion of it has changed.

Devil Water (1962)

Having read the four books above, it wasn’t until years later that I picked up my fifth, Devil Water, in the library. This one centres around the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745, focusing on two English Jacobites, James Radcliffe, the 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, and his younger brother, Charles. Later in the book, Charles’ daughter travels to America, to the plantations of colonial Virginia. Although this wasn’t a favourite, it was of particular interest to me because the first half of the novel is set in the North East of England, which is where I’m from.

Dragonwyck (1944)

This was the last Anya Seton book I read, in 2013. This one is a gothic novel about a young woman from Connecticut who becomes a governess in the home of Nicholas Van Ryn in Hudson, New York. Again, not an absolute favourite, but I did love the historical setting – the Anti-Rent War, the Astor Place Riot of 1849, steamboat races on the Hudson River and even an appearance from Edgar Allan Poe!

I still haven’t read the rest of Seton’s novels, partly because I have already read the ones which appealed to me the most. The other titles are:

My Theodosia (1941)
The Turquoise (1946)
The Hearth and Eagle (1948)
Foxfire (1950)
The Mistletoe and Sword (1955)
Smouldering Fires (1975)

I do have a copy of The Turquoise, which I will read eventually, but if you have read any of the others please let me know what you thought of them!

I will be looking at another author of historical fiction in next month’s post, but for now:
Have you read any of Anya Seton’s novels? Which are your favourites?

28 thoughts on “Historical Musings #37: Reading Anya Seton

  1. Isabella says:

    there is a movie of Dragonwyck which is really good,

    and after visiting various places in the Hudson Valley you can visualize the places in the novel easily

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t seen it but I’ve heard a lot of good things about it – and yes, visiting the place where a book is set can really add something special to the experience of reading it.

  2. jessicabookworm says:

    Helen, I haven’t read anything by Anya Setton. In fact I have never even heard of her before! So thank you for discussing her and her novels – I like the sound of Katherine and Avalon.

    • Helen says:

      It’s a shame her books don’t seem to be very widely read anymore. I loved Katherine – it was one of the books that really sparked my interest in historical fiction.

  3. Lisa says:

    Green Darkness is the only book of hers that I’ve read – and that was long ago, back in high school. I found it really unnerving, particularly the fate of the Tudor-era characters.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I found Green Darkness very unsettling too. The atmosphere and the general creepiness are the things I remember about it rather than the plot.

    • Helen says:

      I loved Katherine, though not Avalon quite as much. I think I might enjoy Avalon more if I read it again as I’m more interested in that time period now.

  4. Margaret says:

    Green Darkness and Katherine are the only ones of hers I’ve read. I re-read Green Darkness a while ago – sadly it didn’t live up to me memories. I preferred Katherine years ago, but I’m reluctant to re-read it after my experience with Green Darkness.

    • Helen says:

      I’m sometimes reluctant to re-read books too for that reason. I didn’t particularly like Green Darkness the first time anyway, but I would hate to spoil my memories of Katherine, which I loved.

  5. Yvonne says:

    I’ve read all of Anya Seton’s books. Such a long time ago I can’t remember what each one was about except that is for Katherine and Devil Water (my favourites) and Dragonwyck, which stays in my memory because of the film starring Vincent Price and Gene Tierney.

    • Helen says:

      I really enjoyed Devil Water, especially as the first section is set in my part of England. I haven’t seen the Dragonwyck film but I liked the book. 🙂

  6. Calmgrove says:

    When ‘Avalon’ was being touted I was more into Dark Age historical novels, and so after initially being attracted by the Arthurian-sounding title I soon lost interest. Nowadays I’d possibly less inclined to pass it by, I suppose.

    • Helen says:

      As far as I can remember the Arthurian connection in ‘Avalon’ is very tenuous, so probably wouldn’t have been what you were looking for at the time. I think the book is worth reading in its own right, though.

  7. Lark says:

    I’ve only read Dragonwyck, and like you, I appreciated the historical setting more than I loved the story. But I did really like the way Seton writes. 🙂

  8. BJ says:

    I love historical fiction but I am unfamiliar with Anya Seton. Katherine and The Winthrop Woman both sound interesting to me so I will have to check them out. Thank you for making me aware of her. 🙂

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