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.

A Year of Reading – Part 2

Following on from Tuesday’s post, here’s the second list of books read during 2016.

read-in-2016

Here’s the rating system I used in 2014 and 2015: LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NF=Non-Fiction; NMT = not my type.

Jun Windmill Point Jim Stempel ER Highly recommended; tells the story of Cold Harbour and the final months of the American Civil War
Elihu Washburne Michael Hill NF Research: Diary and letters of America’s Minister to France during 1870s siege and commune
My Adventures in the Commune Ernest Alfred Vizetelly NF Research: Vizetelly was a journalist living in Paris during the 1871 Commune
Grace Note: In Hildegard’s Shadow P.J. Parsons ER A novel based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen
Jul A Most Extraordinary Pursuit Juliana Gray (Beatriz Williams) LR Excellent; strong female character, witty dialogue, romance, and many twists and turns
Katherine Anya Seton ER 14th century story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt; A favourite of so many readers, I decided to reread it.
The Private Lives of the Impressionists Sue Roe NF More research on 19th century France
The Hotel on Place Vendome Tilar Mazzeo NF A interesting look at the history of Hotel Ritz in Paris and its role during WWII
Aug Belgravia Julien Fellowes GR Julien Fellowes wrote Downton Abbey – need I say more?
The Mapmakers Children Sarah McCoy GR Dual timeline mystery of the underground railway; one timeline is much better than the other
The Lake House Kate Morton ER Another dual timeline mystery; excellent except for the ending
Clementine Sonia Parnell NF Excellent account of the life of Clementine Churchill; reads like a story
Sept The Other Daughter Lauren Willig LR Very enjoyable; after her mother’s death a woman discovers that her father is still very much alive
In the Skin of a Lion Michael Ondaatje GR Beautiful writing but a very unusual story
Oct Under the Sugar Sun Jennifer Hallock LR A schoolmarm, a sugar baron, a soldier – set in the Philippine-American war; predictable
The Shadow Queen Rebecca Dean NMT The most disappointing aspect of this novel is that it ends just as the relationship between Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII begins
Nov Madame Presidentess Nicole Evelina NMT The life of Victoria Woodhull; too much detail and melodrama for my taste
Dec Christmas Bells Jennifer Chiaverini DNF Dual timeline story based on Longfellow’s poem Christmas Bells; IMHO the story was slow and the present day timeline did not work
Alvar The Kingmaker Annie Whitehead GR 10th century England in the turmoil of changing kings; not quite finished

You might be interested in previous lists from 2014 and 2015:

A Year of Reading 2015 – Part 1 and Part 2

A Year of Reading 2014 – Part 1 and Part 2

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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 www.mktod.com.

10 thoughts on Favourite Historical Fiction

Participants in the 2015 reader survey nominated their favourite historical fiction (a second post added those mentioned by 5 to 9 participants). What can we glean from the more than 1700 nominated titles?

Favourite-Historical-Fiction

  1. Many mentions of titles by authors such as Dorothy Dunnett, Elizabeth Chadwick, Sharon Kay Penman, Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brian, Ken Follett and Diana Gabaldon which is not surprising given the status of these writers as favourite authors. (You can find the post on favourite authors here.)
  2. Many mentions of Outlander and Wolf Hall  and I wonder if this reflects their recent TV adaptations.
  3. Despite the request for single titles only, series were frequently nominated which makes me think that participants really enjoy series and additionally did not want to be restricted to three titles.
  4. A significant number of favourites are stories set in ancient Rome.
  5. Many favourite stories were written long ago by authors such as Sir Walter Scott, Daniel Defoe, Mary Stewart, Alexandre Dumas, Irving Stone, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jean Plaidy, Leo Tolstoy.
  6. Readers enjoy myths, particularly those told of King Arthur and Merlin.
  7. Both major and minor historical fiction figures feature in the stories.
  8. There are many, many authors I have never heard of.
  9. The inclusion of a few relatively recent 2015 novels – All the Light We Cannot See for example – might suggest that it’s easier to recall a title recently read than one from long ago.
  10. Not surprisingly, favourites vary with gender, nationality and age.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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 www.mktod.com.