By Anya Seton, 1972, European Historical
Whenever a group of romance writers turn to the subject of influential books, certain writers and books come up over and over again. Regency writers will pick out Georgette Heyer. Romantic suspense writers point to Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt. Western historical romance writers often confess an early love of Louis L'Amour and Zane Gray.
Among a certain set, two books by Anya Seton stand out: Katherine and Green Darkness. I've sat in many a happily heated discussion of which book is better, and why, and by now I can usually pick out who will like which book best.
My favorite is Green Darkness, which spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list the year it was published.
It is not just my favorite Anya Seton, or my favorite romantic historical of the period, but one of my top five favorite books of all time. I own two copies, battered and yellowed, so I can loan one out and never be without one.
The year I was fifteen, I kept a reading diary. Aside from genuine astonishment over how many books I packed away that year between work and school and boyfriends, one fact stands out rather dramatically: I read Green Darkness six times. Since then, I've read it again at least a dozen times, once very recently. Unlike a good many of my old favorites, it stands the test of time brilliantly.
Green Darkness is a tale of love and loss and redemption, told against a sumptuous backdrop in two centuries. Richard Marsdon has brought his American bride Celia home to his family estate in England, and the blissfully happy pair are set to settle in and build their new life together, touring the English countryside, admiring the old ruins of castles.
But as the weeks pass, a strange mood settles over Richard and he withdraws, seeming distant and even brutal at times. Afterward, he is contrite, and loving, but his mercurial moods leave Celia bewildered and unsettled. Matters come to a head one weekend when guests arrive, unwittingly reassembling the major players in a tragic drama played out four hundred years before. Richard's moods become nearly violent, and after one particularly brutal scene, Celia retreats into a catatonic state. While the others fear for her life, Celia is forced to relieve her former life with Richard, then called Stephen, a monk of singular devotion and beauty who is tormented by his love for the young, innocent, and beautiful Celia Bohun.
In some ways, Green Darkness is not an easy read. In the tradition of romantic historicals of the times, it is a dense book, with a cast of hundreds that form a rich and elaborate weaving of past and present. The main characters are complex and human, and must struggle with their own natures, and against a turbulent period in English history.
For all the density, the book is an engrossing read. Seton writes beautifully and with an understanding of human nature that is heartrending. In the following scene, the monk Stephen has been hidden away from the king, and has fallen desperately ill. In the hurry to see what ails him, a young girl, half-smitten already with the sharply intelligent and sensually handsome monk who is her teacher, is forgotten:
"Yet is was the rat which caused Stephen's present danger. They found the bite on Stephen's right thigh when they laid the monk on a long counter in the scullery. The men had forgotten Celia as they stripped off the black habit, and exposed the young man naked. She shrank against the serving hatch and stared.
"She had not known how well-made Stephen's body was, with broad shoulders, narrow hips, the muscles rounded, the flushed skin as smooth and without blemishes as her own. Her shocked gaze flickered over the mat of curly black hair on his chest, the black hair further down which nestled around the large reddish objects which she had vaguely known men to possess and had seen tiny pale replicas of on boy babies. Her cheeks grew hot, she felt the heat into her scalp, and she looked away troubled, fascinated."
At fifteen, I found the book shockingly bawdy and sexy. More than two decades later, I'm not longer shocked, but I find myself admiring the depth of sexual tension developing between Celia and Stephen, tension sustained for hundreds of pages, with very few actual physical encounters. And, as an adult, I find much to appreciate in the frankness of language and the care Seton uses to draw the bawdy world of Elizabethan England.
I can't begin to imagine how so many besotted readings of a single book have influenced me, but I know they have. The writer in me swoons over her use of language, the crisp descriptions, the depth of emotions shown subtly growing to an almost unbearable pinnacle, the depth of history.
But it is the reader in me that most loves Green Darkness, the reader in me that urges all of you who've missed it and love a big historical read of passion and redemption to rush out and find a copy at your local used bookstore. You won't be sorry.
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