Excerpt from Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Portrait of an Unknown Woman

A Novel

by Vanora Bennett

Portrait of an Unknown Woman
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2007, 432 pages
    Apr 2008, 464 pages

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‘You’re thinking paternosterquisesincoelis, aren’t you?’ he said, watching my face. ‘You’re thinking nenosinducasintentationem.’

Then, without a word, he got up and went to the back of the room. I thought he was going to show me the books that seemed to be hidden under the cheesecloth wrappings on the shelf. But he ignored them. He pulled at the logs underneath, and from behind them came different cloth-wrapped packages. He brought one back to show me, unwrapping it as he went.


The book was octavo format, small enough to fit in a pocket or a bag. A loose piece of paper was inserted at the front. He pulled it out and put it under my nose. ‘This is the Paternoster too,’ he said roughly. ‘I don’t speak Latin. I don’t know many people who do. This is the word of God for anyone who doesn’t. This is the word of God, given to everyone who’s been shut out of heaven by the priests. Do you recognise it?’

It was printed in neat Gothic type. Just a page. I looked at the first simple English words, ‘Oure father which arte in heuene halowed be thy name’, and let it flutter back into my lap. I had a sinking feeling I’d gone too far in search of my own truth; there was a sickness in my stomach at the danger I was courting. But I could feel the exhilaration inside too – the thud of my heart, the lightness in my limbs. If I’d never understood the words of the Church until now, I’d have been transfigured by that sentence on the page.

‘Show me more,’ I said.

He gave me that bright sparrow look again, then opened the book for me: ‘I am the floure of the felde, and lyles of the valeyes. As the aple-tre amonge the tres of the wood so is my beloved amonge the sons: in his shadow was my desire to sitt ... Beholde my beloved sayde to me: up and haste my love, my dove, my bewtifull and come, for now is wynter gone and rayne departed and past ... Up haste my love, my dove, in the holes of the rocke and secret places of the walles ...’

‘“Up and haste my love, my dove, my beautiful…”’ I echoed, aloud, surprised again to be moved by this unexpected loveliness of humdrum English words.

He nodded. Satisfied.

‘You like it,’ he said. ‘I thought you would. I’ve been watching you for a long time. I know what you are, however much Latin and Greek you speak, however much you seem like one of them: you’re an innocent at heart.

‘Stay here for a bit, though, and you’ll see the real innocents arrive: people who have never understood the Bible, because it’s in Latin. Simple people who have gone to church all their lives, but not understood a word of what the priests are saying, just stood there muttering “Amen” and “God save me” and thinking the Host is a magic token. People who’ve been told they face hellfire unless they do whatever the priests want. People who’ve had to pay, and pay, and pay again to save themselves from what the priests tell them will be eternal hellfire. An angel for a Mass here. A mark for a wedding there. People who have always lived in mortal fear of the priests, because only the priests understand the word of God, and the priests always want more money than they have. People who come to me now for the books that show them they can know the truth for themselves, and are transformed by it.

‘I’m not one of them – the innocents. My old dad was a Lollard. He believed in an English Bible for everyone who speaks English. So I never knew him. He died before I was born – at the stake. They did burnings, every now and then, even before your dad. But at least because of my dad I grew up knowing the Word of God. Some of it, at least. St James. He’d written it out, and they never managed to find the manuscript. My mum hid it. We learned it by heart.

Excerpted from Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett, Copyright © 2007 by Vanora Bennett. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

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