Daughter of Ernest T. and Grace Gallatin Seton; married twice; secondly to Hamilton Chase, circa 1934; children: three
Anya Seton's father was a nature writer and cofounder of the Boy Scouts; her mother was a feminist, explorer, and writer. Seton was educated in England, France, and the U.S. primarily by private tutors, although she also attended Oxford University. She married and had three children, two from her first marriage, and one from her second marriage to Hamilton Chase. She died of heart failure in November 1990 in Greenwich, Connecticut.
She wrote 13 novels, all historical, although her preferred term is "biographical." The variety of periods depicted is remarkable, but the settings are generally either British or American. All tell exciting stories, usually from the point of view of a female protagonist. The heroines of the fictionalized biographies are related in some way to men who made history. My Theodosia (1941), Seton's first novel and the story of Aaron Burr's only child, dramatizes an obsessive, almost unnatural relationship between father and daughter. Katherine (1954) sympathetically recreates the life of Katherine Swynford, mistress and then wife of John of Gaunt and sister-in-law of Geoffrey Chaucer. The Winthrop Woman (1958) centers on Elizabeth Fones Winthrop, niece and daughter-in-law of Jonathan Winthrop, a settler with him of the Massachusetts Bay Colony but a rebel against harsh Puritan rule. Devil Water (1962) studies Jenny Radcliffe, daughter of an English Jacobite nobleman who was executed for his participation in the rebellions of 1715 and 1745; her conversion to participation in his cause and her life in England and in Virginia are recreated.
Among the novels not centered on actual events is Seton's best-known work, Dragonwyck (1944). Set among Dutch patroons on the Hudson River in the mid-19th century, it contains an effective portrait of a Gothic villain and a heroine who is his innocent accomplice, for her passion and ambition have unconsciously helped cause his crimes. The Turquoise (1946), set in late 19th-century New Mexico and New York, shows its destitute heroine's rise to the top of New York society, inadvertently causing a catastrophe. Her repentance and later life of contrition are movingly depicted. The Hearth and the Eagle (1948), set in 19th-and 20th-century Marblehead, with a flashback to the 17th century, contains another strong heroine whose passionate and impulsive behavior leads her to a series of disappointments, then to ultimate acceptance of values she had earlier rejected.
In the 1970s Seton's interest in the occult has led her to the theme of reincarnation. In Green Darkness (1972), contemporary characters redress evils occurring in 1552 to 1559. Smouldering Fires (1975), a mixture of popular psychology and the occult, depicts an ungainly high school girl who must, through hypnosis, relive the anguish of her Acadian ancestress in order to exorcise it and become a normal young woman.
The Mistletoe and the Sword (1955), set in Roman Britain, tells of the relationship between a Celtic girl and a Roman soldier, their initial enmity gradually being transformed to love. Avalon (1965), which moves through the British and Norse worlds of the late 10th century, follows the relationship of a Cornish girl and a French-English prince, whose lives are intertwined but who are always at cross-purposes. These two novels are unusual for Seton in that male and female protagonists are balanced against each other, both angles of vision being used about equally.
Foxfire (1950) is the only one of Seton's novels not clearly historical. It is set in Arizona in the 1930s and combines the common western myth of the fabulous lost mine with the motif of a Shangri-la.
Seton's female protagonists are passionate and ambitious. In their youthful romantic idealism, they often rush into relationships doomed to disaster. The novels generally end with the heroines recognizing their responsibility for their fates and either doing penance or making a new beginning. In the process, they become "strong to endure." The historical backgrounds in each novel are based on thorough research. Seton admitted, "I have a passion for facts, for dates and places. I love to recreate the past, and to do so with all the accuracy possible." For The Winthrop Women, for example, Seton spent two years reading about the real people on whom she planned to base her story and visiting the places they lived before beginning to write the novel.
Since Seton's death, many of her works have been reissued or republished and remain enormously popular with historical romance fans. Yet because of the age and popularity of her novels, her work is not easy to find. According to her readers, however, it is worth the hunt.
Washington Irving (1960).
CA (Online, 1999).
NY (6 Feb. 1946). NYTBR (16 March 1941, 16 Feb. 1958, 21 Nov. 1965). SR (9 Oct. 1954, 15 Feb. 1958, 3 March 1962).
—MARY JEAN DEMARR,
UPDATED BY CARRIE SNYDER