Vanora Bennett became a journalist almost by accident. Having learned Russian and been hired after university by Reuters, she was catapulted out of the classical-music life of her family and straight into the adrenaline-charged realm of conflict reporting. While on a trainee assignment in Paris, she fell in with the Cambodian émigré community and ended up reporting in Cambodia herself, a decade after the Khmer Rouge regime ended, as well as covering Cambodian peace talks in places as far apart as Indonesia and Paris. That led to a similar job in Africa, commuting between Angola and Mozambique and writing about death, destruction, diamonds and disease, and later to a posting in a country that stopped being the Soviet Union three months after she arrived. She spent much of the early 1990s in smoky taxis in the Caucasus mountains, covering a series of small post-Soviet conflicts that built up to the war in Chechnya.
Her fascination with the cultural and religious differences between Russians and the many peoples once ruled by Moscow grew into a book on the Chechen war (Crying Wolf: The Return of War to Chechnya). A second, more light-hearted book followed, about post-Soviet Russia's illegal caviar trade. This book was The Taste of Dreams: An Obsession with Russia and Caviar.
She now leads a more sedate life in North London with her husband and two small sons. Since 2006, she has written four novels set in the English past. Midnight in St Petersburg, set in Russia, is the fifth. It's about a musical family of violin-makers caught up in the 1917 Revolution, which means it combines a lot of the strands of her own past experience that until now she had thought were just plain incompatible: music, Russia, and pity for the ordinary people caught up in big, uncontrollable conflicts. Writing it was also the chance she had been looking for to do some very Stanislevsky-esque research and make a violin of her own.
Vanora Bennett's website
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What was the inspiration for Portrait of an Unknown Woman?
The first glimmering of the idea for this book came from an exhibition of Holbein drawings at the National Portrait Gallery about 10 years ago.
I was fascinated both by his sheer skill and by the faces of the new Tudor aristocracy he was drawing, enriched by the very recent dissolution of the monasteries and getting fat on the spoils they'd looted. I was living in Boris Yeltsin's New Russia at the time, and the faces Holbein was drawing struck me as having a lot in common with the tough, aggressive, on-the-make faces of the successful new capitalists I saw all around me in Moscow every day.
So I bought the exhibition catalogue and read it from cover to cover in the plane back to Moscow. And in it I found a passing reference to an "ingenious" theory about two versions of Holbein's portrait of Thomas More's family. (The second version of the picture has an extra character in it). The theory had been dreamed up by a retired jeweller called Jack Leslau to explain who this extra character was and why he suddenly appeared in the second version of the group portrait. Leslau believed that the man was John Clement, the More children's tutor, who had married...
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