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.


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

The Girl With Seven Names

Those of us who live in the West know that North Korea is a brutal regime. But what is that world actually like? I read The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee for book club. And what a read it was. Here’s the premise:

As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal totalitarian regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and to realise that she had been brainwashed her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told “the best on the planet”?

Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family.

She could not return, since rumours of her escape were spreading, and she and her family could incur the punishments of the government authorities – involving imprisonment, torture, and possible public execution. Hyeonseo instead remained in China and rapidly learned Chinese in an effort to adapt and survive. Twelve years and two lifetimes later, she would return to the North Korean border in a daring mission to spirit her mother and brother to South Korea, on one of the most arduous, costly and dangerous journeys imaginable.

What aspects of North Korean life surprised or shocked me?

  • Indoctrination begins from birth.
  • There is a caste system called songbun in North Korea. If you’re fortunate, you belong to a high caste. It’s very difficult to improve your caste position. Falling down the caste system is relatively easy. “The hostile class which made up about 40 per cent of the population, learn not to dream. They got assigned to farms and mines and manual labour.”
  • It was unthinkable to defy one’s parent.
  • Kim Il Sung, Kim Jung Il, and now Kim Jung Un are revered almost like gods. Every family must have pictures of the dear leaders in their family. Inspectors come into your house and check to make sure these pictures are prominently displayed and impeccably clean. “They had to be the highest objects in the room and perfectly aligned. No other pictures or clutter were permitted on the same wall.”
  • Police “prowl the city looking for violators of North Korea’s myriad social laws – anyone in jeans, men whose hair was a touch too long, women wearing a necklace or foreign perfume – all of which were unsocialist and symbolic of moral degeneracy and capitalist decadence.”
  • Bribery is often the only way of making anything happen.”
  • There are informers everywhere: “Neighbours could be relied upon to inform on neighbours; children to spy on children; workers to watch co-workers; and the head of the neighbourhood people’s unit, the banging, maintained an organized system of surveillance on every family in her unit.”
  • heroin is one of the few products North Korean makes to an international standard.” It is sold abroad to raise foreign currency.
  • people are executed publicly. Neighbours and family members are expected to watch. Even little children.
  • in school, children have ‘life purification time’, or self-criticism sessions. “Everyone took turns to stand up, accuse someone, and confess something. No one was excused for shyness. No one was allowed to be blameless.”
  • independent though is discouraged. “We were not required to formulate any views of our own, or to discuss, or to interpret ideas in any subject.”
  • America is the enemy.
  • “Every child learned to subordinate their will to that of the collective.”
  • North Korea has a communist youth movement – the Young Pioneer Corps. Participation is mandatory. Members undergo military training.
  • “Kindness toward strangers is rare in North Korea. There is risk in helping others.”
  • North Korea is an atheist state. Anyone caught in possession of a Bible faces execution or a life in the gulag.”
  • suicide is taboo. “Not only is it considered gravely humiliating to the surviving family members, it also guarantees that any children left behind will be reclassified as ‘hostile’ in the songbun system … it is a highly emotive means of protest. The regime regards it as a form of defection.”

There’s much more but I’m sure that’s enough to make you shiver.

Hyeonseo Lee’s story of her own escape and the dangers she subsequently undertook to get her mother and younger brother out of North Korea is harrowing. Her bravery, determination and guts will amaze you. Hyeonseo says  that “curiosity had always been greater than my fear — not a good trait to have in North Korea, where fear keeps your senses sharp and helps you stay alive.” Somehow, she prevailed.


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 Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

A Year of Reading 2019 – Part 2

Tuesday’s post included 21 of the 38 books read during 2019. Below are the remaining 17. And here’s the legend.

LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type.

Title Author Comment
Jul The Spy and the Traitor Ben Macintyre OR This true story of espionage and double agents during the Cold War is riveting.
Jul Eye of the Needle Ken Follett ER An exciting, tense spy thriller set during WWII. One of Follett’s best.
Jul Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell DNF Devoured this when I was a teenager but could not get ‘into’ the story a second time.
Aug Ribbons of Scarlet Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Heather Webb OR Wonderfully written novel set during the French Revolution. Told through the eyes of six unique, complex women.
Aug The Guilty Ones Joy Ellis ER Definitely a page-turner with many unexpected twists.
Aug The Punishment She Deserves Elizabeth George OR Superb twists and turns in this murder-mystery be acclaimed author Elizabeth George.
Sep Crime on the Fens Joy Ellis LR Crisp police detective story, with many twists and twisted characters.
Sep The Irish Princess Elizabeth Chadwick ER Superb historical fiction featuring Ireland in the 12th century, a time of warring kingdoms and England’s plans to seek control.
Oct Know My Name Chanel Miller OR A stunning journey through the lived experience of Chanel Miller a victim of sexual assault.
Oct She Said Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey ER Breaking the news of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment and abuse and the #MeToo movement
Nov Button Man Andrew Gross LR 3.5 stars. Intriguing historical backdrop and time period – the garment industry in 1930s New York – make this an interesting read.
Nov The One Man Andrew Gross DNF Folks on Goodreads said this was Gross’s best. Perhaps I wasn’t in the right mood.
Nov The Ragged Edge of Night Olivia Hawker ER A beautifully written story that features distinct and memorable characters; set in WWII with German characters
Nov Written in Their Stars Elizabeth St. John ER The novel sizzles with emotion, tension, and memorable characters who struggle to overcome tragedies during the English Civil War.
Nov The Harem Midwife Roberta Rich LR An intriguing peek into the confines, jealousies and power struggles of a sultan’s harem.
Dec The Dressmaker of Khair Khana Gayle Tzemach Lemmon ER An inspiring story of women coping with life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Non-fiction.
Dec The Fortunate Ones Catherine Hokin ER This novel grabs your attention from start to finish and makes you think about war, consequences, choices, and the power of love.
Dec The Dutch House Ann Patchett ER Words like quiet, introspective, compelling characters, and atmospheric come to mind.


I hope you all enjoyed some wonderful books in 2019. Recommendations and comments welcome.


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 Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website