If you think of books as a ticket to other places, then think of Anya Seton, who wrote twelve historical novels in her lifetime, as a time-traveling tour guide.
Anya Seton was born into a wealthy Greenwich, Connecticut, family that consisted of her travel-writer mother and artist/writer father, and she seems to have inherited a sense of writing wanderlust; her lengthy books take place in far-reaching times and places, including Viking communities in the 900s, early New England colonies, and mid-nineteenth Hudson Valley.
One of her novels, Green Darkness, starts in 1960s England and takes a hefty turn to the 1550s for the brunt of the story before returning to the era of beehive hairdos. I was wary, at first, of the reincarnation theme and the idea of past lives wreaking physical havoc on the present.
Green Darkness (1972) was one of the last books Anya Seton wrote. It’s about love meant to be, not meant to be, and a couple’s romantic history righting itself. The main character for most of the book is Celia, a naïve young girl in 1551 who turns dangerously flirtatious in a society where she’s little more than a man’s prize or liability. Her modern counterpart is a newlywed, also named Celia, who lives in the 1960s and becomes gravely ill when she visits the region around her husband’s old family estate, the old Celia’s stomping grounds.
There were plenty of times when the story seemed to slow down and dwell on episodes of Celia’s life for no good reason. It meandered in a way that begged to ask why in the world so much time was being spent on scenes so unrelated to the main plot. But it was such fun to smell the foods, hear the bawdy laughter and the music and witness the bizarre rituals that existed in the world Seton created.
And, of course, there was more to those portions of the book than sensory fulfillment. By the end, I knew the characters and could trace their connections to the modern-day storyline much better since I’d spent so much time in their company centuries before. Seton’s narrative deftly convinced me that I had been there.
Smouldering Fires (1975) was Seton’s last novel. It revisits the theme of reincarnation, this time through a high school girl named Amy Delatour who feels an uneasy attachment to a woman from an old Longfellow poem. The story shifts between Nova Scotia, Connecticut and Louisiana as Amy grows from mousy and unsure of herself to able and confident through the help of hypnotic regression administered by her teacher.
This short novel offers a quick taste of Seton’s imagination and dedication to a setting’s relationship with the plot. How does an eighteenth century Acadian refugee’s life connect to a senior at a modern-day Connecticut high school? What are the historical origins of this girl’s fears? Where does she need to go to understand these connections? Place is an indispensable character here, just as in Green Darkness with its setting-triggered conflicts.
Dragonwyck (1944) was only the second novel Seton published and shows an early attachment to place as a character that fuels the story. In this novel, an ingénue named Miranda falls in love with her wealthy distant cousin, Nicolas Van Ryn. Nicolas acts like a feudal lord ruling over a serfdom like his Dutch ancestors instead of a landlord with tenants in 1844 New York State. After his cold marriage ends with his wife’s death, he marries Miranda and she begins to understand how his world helped form his dangerous personality.
Seton’s other works include Katherine, The Winthrop Woman, and Avalon. Katherine brings the reader to England in the Middle Ages (and an adulterous royal love affair), while The Winthrop Woman jets ahead a few hundred years and 3,000 miles to colonial New England and an early Massachusetts political family. Avalon beats both in terms of exotic locale—want to travel back a thousand years and meet some Vikings? That’s your book.
Seton was a tour guide who delivered. Which trips sound good to you?
Aniko Eva Nagy reads, teaches and writes in Boston, Massachusetts which she is happy to call her hometown, perhaps one of the best cities for a book lover. Head over to her blog, bookbash.wordpress.com, for thoughts on the joy of books, and a bunch of general bookishness.