THE SCANDALOUS DUCHESS
Author: Anne O’Brien
Mira RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Great love scandals are nothing new and Anne O’Brien tackles a well-known one in her latest novel, The Scandalous Duchess – the love story of John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, and his mistress (and later, wife) Katherine de Swynford. The couple were ancestors of the Beauforts and of Henry VII, the first Tudor king. With its royal politics and courtly escapades, it’s fascinating from an historical perspective, but the idea of the enduring love between John and Katherine is one that will make romantic readers swoon.
Lady Katherine de Swynford is widowed and close to destitution when she asks John, Duke of Lancaster, for a role in his household. She had previously served the Duke’s first wife, Blanche, and now that he has married Constance of Castile, she hopes for a similar role. Instead, he asks Katherine to be his mistress. It’s a scandalous proposition, and Katherine knows that even considering it is sinful, but eventually she is won over; the two conduct a passionate affair in secret, knowing that discovery will mean a high price to pay. As with all great loves, there is a test and the question is, will their love withstand it? Will the Duke choose his own ambitions over his love? And who will everyone point the finger at when the affair is unmasked?
Going into this book, I knew little of the real-life affair, but I’ve since discovered that the romance has been written about many times, notably in Katherine by Anya Seton (some hold this book up to be the benchmark for Katherine’s story, but I can’t make that comparison yet). I also understand that there is little historical evidence available about Katherine, so O’Brien had to bring the romance to life using her own imagination. Without the benefit of comparison, I think she did a great job, delivering a story of romance and intrigue that had me crossing my fingers for a happy ending, and caught up in the political intrigue that threatened the couple. Katherine’s character was beautifully drawn, particularly her anguish at having to leave behind her children (as was common in those times), and it made me want to know more about her.
That’s one of the things I love about historical novels – they always make me want to search for more information, whether it’s looking up more information on the characters or events portrayed, looking up lines of descent to see who fits where, and so on. In this case, I want to read Seton’s version and see how she depicts Katherine – she’s a character you don’t really forget, and I’m not ready to say goodbye yet.
One other thing. I mentioned that the two had a passionate affair, yet O’Brien doesn’t go into much detail about the physical side of the relationship. It’s there, but the details are light. Some readers might be disappointed, but for me the passion they felt was conveyed well enough without the need for detail.
Available from good bookshops and Harlequin Australia. My copy was courtesy of Harlequin Australia.
Bookish treat: Chocolate cherry liqueur balls were a royal treat.