franciscangypsy's review

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informative medium-paced

4.0

Alison Weir is the author who first got me interested in devoting more reading time to history vs fiction... and she particularly helped me learn to appreciate English history. It has been a while since I have read one of her books, since I have branched out into reading other authors as my interest in reading about history (and not just English history) has grown. 

It was nice to return to the author who got me to appreciate English history. I have owned this book for awhile, but for some reason never got around to reading. I am glad that I finally have.

I forgot how easy Weir's writing is to read. Her style is pleasant and not at all dry. She does her research and seems passionate about her chosen topics.

However....

I never noticed before -- and maybe it is just something she does in this book -- but Weir uses the word "obviously" a little too often. The conclusions she came to were not obvious and left me wondering what brought her to them. I would have preferred her to offer a reference. If there was no reference, I don't mind a theory being offered. I just don't like said theory being presented as "obvious". It isn't. We weren't there and what is in the text does not "obviously" support the conclusion.

And my final bugbear is that Weir too often assumed that things that John of Gaunt did were for Katherine, particularly favors granted to Katherine's sister Phillipa Chaucer and to Katherine's brother-in-law Geoffrey Chaucer. They could have been. But Chaucer and Phillipa both had a long history of service to the royal family and particularly to the Lancastrian branch. Phillipa, in particular, had served both of John's wives prior to Katherine (Blanche and Constance). Most favors to Phillipa were granted with the note: "for her great service to my beloved wife (insert name here)". It seems rather one-note to assume that John of Gaunt would primarily grant favors to the Chaucers because of Katherine. It seems just as likely that he would have esteemed the Chaucers on their own merit and that their familial connection to Katherine was a happy happenstance. 

I do think that the author vastly overemphasizes how much of what John of Gaunt did was for or due to Katherine. I do think that she was important to him. I don't think that his affection for her was all-encompassing, though. To be fair, a lot of the assumptions are made because there simply isn't a ton of source material on Katherine. Most of what is known as fact about her seems to be in relation to her husbands and her children. I think that the author might have been better served if she had chosen to make this book a dual biography on John of Gaunt & Katherine Swynford. Then she would have had to do fewer gymnastics to try to make her primary subject pertinent to the story. With two protagonists, her job would have been easier... especially since there is much more material on John of Gaunt.

That being said, I did really enjoy this book. It was very easy to read, even if I didn't always agree with assumptions made. I would definitely recommend it, though I do encourage fellow readers to supplement this book with others during the same era, particularly a book on John of Gaunt, in order to get a more complete view of the Katherine and her famous love story. The only reason I gave this book 4 stars was because of the tendency to reach in order to involve Katherine in events. It is a strong 4 stars, though, close to 4.25. Well worth the time I spent reading it.

mkschoen's review against another edition

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3.0

Very good so far. Weir does a good job of telling her story depite having almost no source material in the woman's own voice. It is a bit tricky keeping track of everyone; I keep flipping to the geneaology charts in the back to see who's who and whether they're York or Lancaster.

The one fault is that lack of Katherine's voice. There's a lot of "Katherine would have known...," "Katherine must have beleived...," "Katherine may have remembered..." etc. Weir does a good job making her case, but there's simply no way to know whether this is the great love story she says it is.


sophronisba's review

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challenging emotional informative reflective medium-paced

4.25

I really enjoyed this book about Katherine Swynford, who started as the mistress to a king's uncle and ended as the ancestor of most British monarchs and six presidents. I'm impressed that Alison Weir managed to cobble together a 400-page biography of a woman who left behind no recorded words, no papers, no letters, no will, and no personal possessions. 

Weir's tendency to interpret evidence in the way that will make her happiest is as evident here as it is in her Eleanor of Aquitaine biography -- she insists, for example, that John of Gaunt and Katherine couldn't have consummated their relationship while his first wife was still alive because he told the pope they didn't. Because, I guess, no one would ever lie to the pope about sex? Weir seems really invested in the idea that John of Gaunt were a true love match, but it's hard to believe that two apparently savvy and ambitious people engaged in a relationship motivated entirely by romance and not at all by political and financial considerations. But I never met these people either -- maybe Weir is right and I'm just a cynic. Quibbles about Weir's interpretation aside, this book transported me to medieval England and made me add Kenilworth to the list of places I must visit some day and I thought it was well worth my time.

khoerner7's review against another edition

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2.0

This started out as a very readable historical work on an interesting woman. Katherine Swynford was the widow of a British knight in the 1300s. She is most known for being a long time mistress of John of Gaunt, son of King Edward III and uncle to Richard II. She had four children with John of Gaunt. After his second wife died, he scandalously married his mistress though she was of low birth. Katherine was the great great grandmother of both Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. While the story was interesting, all the details got to be too much and I skimmed a lot.

librarianmel's review against another edition

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3.0

I liked this biography for what it was, but I also think it should be narrowed and inserted in a larger context, important women in medieval times, or something. Katherine Swynford seems like she was a cool and baller lady, but so little actually exists of her today, that the entire book was, maybe, possibly, and quotes from Chaucer (her brother-in-law) that may have been about her, John of Gaunt, or their circle of acquaintances.

I would like it very much if the author would write a fictionalized version of Katherine's life, since so many of the details need to be invented, anyway, her other historical fiction novels have always been enjoyable for me.

booksss's review against another edition

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3.0

I do understand Weir's handicap regarding the lack of accounts on Katherine Swynford's activities, but this felt like reading her cheque books and the deeds of people surrounding her.

chandraisenberg's review against another edition

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3.0

Unfortunately, there's very little extant primary source material when it comes to Katherine Swynford; however, Weir, in a valiant effort, attempts to piece together some semblance of a biography. The text isn't lengthy and, often, chronicles the major events in the lives of those surrounding Katherine, as well (e.g. John of Gaunt, Hugh Swynford, Chaucer, Richard II, Blanch of Gaunt, the Beafort children).

It's difficult to imagine an author telling Katherine Swynford's story more successfully than Anya Seton. Her novel is commendable, but fictional. In light of the interest Seton's novel generated, a biography was definitely called for, but I can't say that I feel Weir truly did the job to the best of her abilities. Though it's a great contribution to aristocracy and politics during the latter part of Edward III's reign and that of Richard II, I feel as though Weir didn't accomplish what she set out to do.

thebookishlifeofcms's review

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3.0

3.5 stars

empheliath's review

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3.0

I wish I could give 3.5 stars. The trouble with this book is not one that is the author's fault -- it's simply that there isn't that much information about Katherine Swynford out there. None of her writings survive, no letters written to her, most of the places she lived are now ruins. So a lot of what we know about her comes indirectly -- from things the people around her were doing, inferences that can be made based on patterns of gifts and payments to her in other people's financial registers, etc. As a result, this biography suffered from a lack of the personality insights that I enjoy so much in Weir's other biographies, where she is able to use letter and diary excerpts to good effect.

doriastories's review

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4.0

Alison Weir never disappoints me; she remains one of my very favorite writers of historical biographies, especially those of English monarchs and their relatives. Her latest offering, a carefully-examined life of Katherine Swynford is surprisingly satisfying, given how little we know for sure about this elusive yet significant woman.
Katherine's story is so compelling, that it is tempting to embroider details onto the bare facts of her story. Weir resists this pitfall, and presents us instead with a sort of choose-your-own adventure, leaving it to the reader to imagine plausible scenarios, given what we know and can discern from the lists of royal gifts, endowments, births, deaths and such that made up the tapestry of fourteenth century life for the upper classes.
Weir succeeds in giving us the impression of this medieval matriarch, based on hard facts and sensible inferences, without romanticizing Katherine's life and circumstances. Katherine is not made to conform to modernist feminist notions of women's liberation, but is shown within her own cultural context, where she properly belongs. There's no kirtle burning or defying of male authority, but an extraordinary life is there to be read, and a moving story of an abiding love between two people, which neither religious strictures nor time could dampen. All the cold hard facts in the world can't dull the enduring power of a love affair that literally changed the world.