Anya Seton: A Writing Life by Lucinda MacKethan

Ask fans of historical fiction to list some of their favourite authors and Anya Seton’s name will always pop up. Ask historical fiction authors who inspired their writing and Seton will be near the top of that list too. So, when a publicist from Independent Publishers Group contacted me with an offer to read this biography, I couldn’t get my hand up fast enough!

While writing Anya Seton: A Writing Life, Lucinda MacKethan had access to reams of letters, financial data, publicity materials, and over three thousand handwritten pages of Anya Seton’s journals. After exploring the author’s early years with a domineering, self-centred father and a mother who constantly travelled for months on end, MacKethan relates how Anya’s tumultuous life unfolded in parallel with the novels she wrote. This structure works brilliantly and provides intriguing insights into Seton’s motivations behind her characters and plot.

Anya’s father, Ernest Thompson Seton (his original surname was Thompson), was a naturalist, fieldworker, scientist and prolific writer. In 1896, he married Grace Gallatin, Anya’s mother, who was an author, suffragist and world traveller. Anya, originally named Ann, was born in 1904. As MacKethan tells us, Anya’s parents were “both confident, wilful, and absolutely determined to achieve individual goals at whatever cost. In addition, they both had a sense, in part due to a shared mystical bent, that they were destined for greatness, which meant that they would be not only competitive but also combative about getting what they were sure they deserved.”

Ernest’s and Grace’s personalities had a long-lasting and detrimental effect on their daughter. In childhood, Anya had several homes and often travelled with her mother, which meant that she could not “count on being in her ‘real’ school any more than she would be able to count on a home that she could feel was her own, something that eluded her for decades.” Her father’s absences, his passions for nature and the native way of life, his travels, and his prolific writing meant that he was rarely there to nurture his daughter. In addition, he was prone to criticism rather than praise.

In 1966, she had this to say about her father:

Although initially Anya felt destined to be something other than a writer, “to live vivid exciting things, not write them for imaginary creatures”, “that occupation was in the air she breathed.” She declared that she was “thoroughly aware of the seamy side of the profession–the drudgery, the essential loneliness, and the tough hide needed to persevere through discouragement and misunderstandings.”

Through two marriages, three children, two divorces, and ten novels, Anya Seton struggled to achieve literary success equivalent to the male writers of her time, to secure financial stability, to balance her writing and home lives, and most of all, to find love. It saddened me to learn that Seton also struggled for years with drugs, alcohol, and at times a debilitating lack of confidence.

After writing a few of what Anya Seton called “love pulps”, from her first work of historical fiction, My Theodosia, to her last, Smouldering Fires, her novels won awards, were on best-sellers lists, and earned significant income. They also achieved commercial success through serialization, book club and film rights.

Anya’s novels had recurring themes: the domineering and arrogant male, women held in an emotional prison, three-sided male entrapments, and loving, forceful mothers. Most stories also included a “beautiful, sexually inexperienced girl determine to find a great love.” Writing about Green Darkness, Lucinda MacKethan says: “Anya’s sporadic creative effort during these stormy years resulted in a novel that was indeed full of tumult, some of it horrifically related to dim history and some of it a parable of the inner darkness in which Anya has so often felt trapped.”

While for Anya, there was a “cleavage between writing and living”, she acknowledged that “the purest pleasure in life is intellectual–historical delving.”

I’ll leave you with two quotes in Anya Seton’s own words. The first is written shortly after finishing her final draft of Katherine:

I suppose I write myself over and over again in the heroines.

And later as she reflects on writing historical fiction:

The details of living change fast, but people change slowly and emotions not at all. It seems to me that a story set in any period may have validity and meaning for the present.

Anya Seton: A Writing Life by Lucinda MacKethan

Lucinda MacKethan’s biography is a superb story of a famous author’s life along with her struggles for recognition and fulfilment. Anya Seton: A Writing Life will fascinate readers and authors alike.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

10 thoughts on “Anya Seton: A Writing Life by Lucinda MacKethan”

    1. Hi Gail .. thanks for stopping by. As to your question – I’ve read two of Jennifer’s novels. Met her at one of the Historical Novel conferences. She’s a fellow Canadian, also from Toronto where I live. Have you enjoyed her stories?

  1. “The details of living change fast, but people change slowly and emotions not at all. It seems to me that a story set in any period may have validity and meaning for the present.” Anya Seton: A Writing Life by Lucinda MacKethan

    It is that quote that is my argument against any who say that histircal novelists often write the emotions from a 21st century viewpoint. From my POV, emotions are indelible. Thank you so much for the quote – if it’s okay, I shall share…

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