A month ago a lovely Litchfield lady introduced me to my new favorite author, Anya Seton. The first book I read was The Hearth and Eagle and I was instantly transfixed by Seton’s writing. I was so engrossed in this book that I was even thinking about the story during work and wondering what was going to happen next. The reason she is my new favorite author is because she was a gifted storyteller and she put so much hard work into her historical research. The pace of her writing feels like real life but is also suspenseful, almost like she is a tour guide on a time machine.
Anya Seton’s extraordinary amount of research is what sets her apart from other historical romance authors, and is one of the main reasons why she won international acclaim. She actually did not like to be placed in the historical romance genre, preferring the term “biographical novel”. Margaret Moser wrote an article about Anya Seton for The Austin Chronicle saying, “Don’t judge Anya Seton’s reissued biofics by their romance and bad covers”. I couldn’t agree more. Moser quotes Anya Seton describing the nature of her writing, “My own works are very, very different in approach. I have a passion for facts, for dates, for places. I love to recreate the past and to do so with all the accuracy possible. This means an enormous amount of research, which is no hardship because I love it.”
Anya Seton has an interesting life story of her own. She was born in 1904 in the United States and was partially raised in Connecticut and partially in England. She was named Ann at birth but when she was five she was given the name Anutika by a Sioux Chief who was visiting the family. Later her name was shortened to Anya. She did not write her first novel until she was 37 years old.
In almost every novel she writes an intriguing, short Author’s Note which shows her extensive research and the historical significance of the book.
The Hearth and Eagle, pub. 1948: This novel takes place in the 1800s, in Marbledale, Massachusetts, with a story-within-a-story about the 1600s. Seton tells us of Mark and Phoebe Honeywood who emigrated from England in the 1600s. They built a house made of pine boards which turned into a tavern that survived many storms throughout the years. But this is a story about Hesper Honeywood, a descendant of Phoebe who lived in the 1800s. There is romance, suspense, adventure… truly a beautiful book.
Foxfire, pub. 1950: This is a story of Arizona in the 1930s. Perhaps I found it even more interesting because I lived in both Connecticut and Arizona myself, just like the heroine of the novel. A girl from a wealthy family in Connecticut who lost their fortune in the 1929 stock market crash marries a Native American man from Arizona. They live in a mining town in Arizona, in poor conditions that she is not used to. Another great story of suspense with attempted murder, an adventure to find a lost city, and a sweet love story about her marriage.
The Mistletoe and The Sword, pub. 1956: This story takes place in 60 C.E. when Rome is invading England. A Roman soldier falls in love with an English foster princess. This story was reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings with Druids, battles and magic!
Avalon, pub. 1965: This intriguing story takes place in the turn of the millenium, the 990s and 1000s. This is the life story of the Lady Merewyn, who had been raised to believe that she was descended from King Arthur but was actually the daughter of a Viking. It’s also the story of the only man who knows her secret. It takes place in England, Iceland, Greenland and even the New World. As in many of her novels, historically famous people are minor characters. In this story some of the famous ones are Erik the Red, Leif the Lucky and Queen Emma.
Smouldering Fires, pub. 1975: This is a different type of biographical novel, a young adult novel set in more modern times than her other books. A young girl discovers she has psychic powers to see the past. She is hypnotized by her high school teacher because he is so intrigued by her gift. This eery story takes place in Greenwich, Connecticut where Seton lived for many years. She said that she did the same amount of research as her other historical novels and ended up learning much about her own home town.
I read her first three novels after I had read some of her others, and while these are good books, they do not seem to have the same strength and suspense of her other writings, in my opinion. I do think they are interesting and worth reading, all the same.
My Theodosia, pub. 1941: I am actually reading this novel as we speak. It is a story of the daughter of Aaron Burr, and much of Aaron Burr’s story is told from Theodosia’s perspective. But this is Seton’s version of what really happened with the mystery of Theodosia’s life and love.
Dragonwyck, pub. 1944: This novel takes place in the 1840s. It is about Miranda, a country girl who is sent to Dragonwyck, a mansion on the Hudson River, to tutor her cousin’s daughter. This is one of her darker novels, as there is murder and ghosts, but it is also a redemptive love story.
The Turquoise, pub. 1946: This is a semi-fictional life story of a woman named Fey, from Santa Fe, New Mexico. It takes place in the mid-1800s in New Mexico and New York, and her travels and romance in between. What I liked best in this novel was her descriptions of New York City in the 1860s. This was the first time I felt like I had an accurate picture of what the city was like during that time.
I have enjoyed her novels so much that I believe I’ll be sad when I finish all of them. I do think that many of her novels would be worth reading a second time. Here are the last of her books which I haven’t read yet but are next on my list:
Katherine, pub. 1954: A friend of mine remembered that this book was required reading for her in high school. I wish that Anya Seton’s stories still were! This is the story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. It takes place in the 1300s and pieces together many previously unknown facts about Katherine’s life.
The Winthrop Woman, pub. 1958: Seton did an extensive amount of research into this reconstruction of the life of Elizabeth Winthrop, who she believed was wrongly remembered in history.
Devil Water, pub. 1962: This is the true story of Charles Radcliffe and his daughter Jenny. It takes place in the 1700s in England and America during the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. It is compared to The Winthrop Woman in it’s rich historical detail and powerful storytelling.
Green Darkness, pub. 1972: This is the story of a present day woman haunted by her past life 400 years ago as a servant in 16th-century England. It is a mystical suspense and is one of Anya Seton’s books that is most recommended by her fans.
Jesse Lee Harmon is the bookkeeper/library assistant at OWL and thinks every season is reading season… summer is for reading on the beach and winter is for reading snuggled up under blankets with a cup of hot Sleepytime tea!