Portrait of an Unknown Woman: A Novel

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9780061251832: Portrait of an Unknown Woman: A Novel

The year is 1527. The great portraitist Hans Holbein, who has fled the reformation in Europe, is making his first trip to England under commission to Sir Thomas More. In the course of six years, Holbein will become a close friend to the More family and paint two nearly identical family portraits. But closer examination of the paintings reveals that the second holds several mysteries...

Set against the turmoil, intrigue and, tragedy of Henry VIII's court, Portrait of an Unknown Woman vividly evokes sixteenth-century England on the verge of enormous change. As the Protestant Reformation sweeps across Europe to lap at England's shores, relations between her king and the Catholic Church begin to plummet-driven by Henry VIII's insatiable need for a male heir and the urgings of his cunning mistress Anne Boleyn-and heresy begins to take hold. As tensions rise, Henry VIII turns to his most trusted servant and defender of Catholic orthodoxy, Sir Thomas More to keep peace in England, but soon the entire More family find their own lives at risk.

At the center of Portrait of an Unknown Woman is Meg Gigg's, Sir Thomas More's twenty-three year old adopted daughter. Intelligent, headstrong, and tender-hearted, Meg has been schooled in the healing arts. And though she is devoted to her family, events conspire that will cause Meg to question everything she thought she knew-including the desires of her own heart. As the danger to More and his family increases, two men will vie for Meg's affections: John Clement, her former tutor and More's protégé who shares Meg's passion for medicine, but whose true identity will become unclear, and the great Holbein, who's artistic vision will forever alter her understanding of the world.

With a striking sense of period detail Portrait of an Unknown Woman is an unforgettable story of sin and religion, desire and deception. It is the story of a young woman on the brink of sensual awakening and of a country on the edge of mayhem.

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About the Author:

Vanora Bennett is the author of two acclaimed novels, Portrait of an Unknown Woman and Figures in Silk, and an award-winning journalist. She has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, the Times Literary Supplement, The Times (London), and the BBC. She lives in North London with her husband and two children.

From The Washington Post:

Reviewed by Carolyn See

The time here is during the reign of King Henry VIII, those iffy years when he's thinking of dumping his first queen, the devout, hapless Catherine of Aragon, and hooking up with the bewitching Ann Boleyn. Still a Catholic, the English monarch wants the pope to set him free to marry, but the pope will have none of it. Across the Channel, a decade or so before all this, Martin Luther had gotten fed up with the excesses of the Catholic Church and set the Reformation in motion. Henry has been mounting a spirited persecution of Protestants on English soil. One of his most trusted courtiers is Sir Thomas More, who ardently -- too ardently, some would say -- assists his king in tracking down heretics.

The place in which this serviceable, interesting novel unfolds is the More household, a vast estate on the outskirts of London where his children, wards and visiting scholars mingle and talk freely about the new learning. Back in the day, Erasmus was a beloved houseguest, and soon Hans Holbein, the up-and-coming Continental artist, will be arriving to paint a portrait of More's extended family. All seems well. But the reader (if he or she has ever sat through an English lit survey class) knows that More, the author of "Utopia," among other books, will soon become a victim of the Renaissance wheel of fortune. He's mighty now. But he will inevitably fall.

These events are witnessed and remembered by Meg Giggs, one of More's wards, who has all the characteristics of a certain kind of fictional heroine. She's tall and rather fly-about; her mind is brisk, her curiosity, kindness and intelligence off the charts. She isn't conventionally beautiful like her sneaky adopted sister Elizabeth, but men of discernment fall for her immediately. Her true love is a man named John Clements, whom More hired a few years before to be a schoolmaster for his children. Clements has gone away for some time and returns now to claim Meg as his bride. Elizabeth isn't too happy about it. Clements, a man of mystery, has more secrets than you can shake a stick at.

To reveal these secrets, or even to address them, would be to give away the plot. But the author states in an accompanying note that she got the idea for all this from the independent research of a retired jeweler named Jack Leslau, who believes he's found clues (in a portrait attributed to Holbein) to what actually happened to the two young princes supposedly killed in the tower of London by the dastardly Richard III. (If you can't follow this, don't worry. You're not the only one.) Indeed, everything in this novel comes to a grinding halt when the first of several of these secrets is revealed. If you're not way up on your Renaissance history, you'll be left dazed and confused.

But the intricacies of this part of the plot don't really matter to the heart of the story. The larger narrative here has to do with the increasingly hysterical religious infighting in London between Catholics and Protestants as Henry decides to marry Ann Boleyn and subdue the obstreperous Catholic segments of his population (with Sir Thomas More caught in the middle, and about to lose both his high position and his life).

The smaller, more personal part of the story is about what happens to a woman who marries out of love and then gradually learns that her husband is not only less smart than she is but something of a slippery deceiver. Many women, I'm sorry to say, may be able to relate to this.

And then there is a satisfying examination of the career of Hans Holbein, artist-on-the-make, as he tries to deal with his commonplace, long-suffering wife while striving mightily to establish contacts with the great families of Europe in order to build his career. The author has gone to great pains to explain how Holbein used background details to lend hidden meanings to his pictures, and these are some of the most engaging parts of the book.

"Portrait of an Unknown Woman" is a novel for English majors. It sends you back to Cardinal Wolsey swanning about in his crimson robes, sniffing a pomander to keep away the plague, and Erasmus's "In Praise of Folly," in which he remarks that the greatest possible proof of human folly is that after a woman has one baby, she goes right ahead and chooses to have another. It reminds us once again of Sir Thomas More, sitting in a latrine, fascinated by the risque graffiti he found there. In other words, if you care about this sort of thing, it will make you feel learned all over again, even if you've forgotten half of what you ever absorbed in school.

The most contemporary and disheartening aspect of this tale is how so many characters here thrash about killing each other in the name of God -- always a popular human pastime. Things haven't changed very much in that regard, the author implicitly reminds us. But, with luck, and this is the good news, the sensible and discreet among us may live good and decent private lives, both then and now.

Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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