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
    Paperback:
    Apr 2008, 464 pages

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‘The Church is a blessing for the higher orders of society; for everyone else it’s a dark mystery. A torment. Stay, and you’ll see what hearing the Word of God for the first time can do. How knowing the truth of the Bible shows people they can be free from the tyranny of the Church.’

His face was blazing with intensity.

‘But Davy,’ I stammered, startled by the logic and force of his argument. ‘My father’s fighting the Bible men because he says they bring evil into the world. Are you saying you believe the Church is evil? And my father too?’

He cackled unpleasantly at the mention of Father, then collected himself. ‘Look. What I believe is that no one in this struggle is truly evil. There are just two sides. On your dad’s side are the people who believe in tradition – who think all those centuries of Popes and princes of the Church and benefices and bribes are Christ’s body on Earth. People who believe that the Princes of Rome need panthers and leopards and elephants and palaces and armies and to make their bastards into cardinals, and that it’s all right for them to pay for it by gouging millions of fees for anathemas and fake relics from ordinary people. The people who turn a blind eye to the fact that enough wood to build a battleship is said to have come from the True Cross. And on the other side there are people – like me – who believe that being a Christian means they’re allowed to have a simple conversation with God without having to pay a priest for the privilege. People who believe that if all you have to do is truly believe and your sins will be forgiven, that all these exorcisms the priests go in for – and all these Church hallowings of wine, bread, wax, water, salt, oil, incense, vestments, mitres, cross, pilgrim’s staves, you name it – are no better than witchcraft. That a worldly Pope has no power to make a saint. That a Church full of lucky charms is no better than a synagogue of Satan. That’s my side. I can’t see why anyone would call that evil. If I can’t understand the words, there’s no more point in my saying ‘Paternoster’ than ‘bibble babble’, is there? And if I can’t understand what they’re saying in Church, and all I get is some priest jumping in my face telling me I’ll be damned unless I give him my money, aren’t I better off praying in a field? Or here?’

There was a tap at the door. ‘Cover up,’ Davy hissed, and I tweaked my hood over my bonnet. It was cold in the cellar. A tiny old man came in, with a cloak over him so shaggy and simple it looked more like a blanket. He gave me a fearful look. ‘Don’t worry,’ Davy told him. ‘She’s new, but I know her.’ The man nodded three or four times, and sat down with his arms wrapped round himself at the end of the farthest bench, but went on giving me wary glances.

They came in twos and threes after that, all poor folk, all huddled in thick worsteds and patched top gear. The last to arrive was the older of the two women who had been in my house. She looked startled to see me, but then she jutted her chin out defiantly and nodded. ‘Welcome, missis,’ she muttered, and the tiny old man calmed down and uncrossed his arms.

There was hardly any talk, just a mutter or two of greeting. When they were all assembled, Davy shut the door and read from the little book, in his cracked street-trader’s voice. ‘Come with a pure mind and, as the Scripture sayeth, with a single eye, unto the words of health and of eternal life,’ he said, ‘by which, if we repent and believe them, we are born anew, created afresh, and enjoy the fruits of the blood of Christ. That blood crieth not for vengeance, as the blood of Abel. Instead it hath purchased life, love, favour, grace, blessing, and whatsoever is promised in the Scriptures to them that believe and obey God.’

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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