Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Portrait of an Unknown Woman

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Portrait of an Unknown Woman

A Novel

by Vanora Bennett

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


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Beyond the Book

This article relates to Portrait of an Unknown Woman

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Vanora Bennett became a journalist by accident; having learned Russian and been hired out of university by Reuters she was catapulted into the adrenaline charged realm of conflict reporting. She has reported from Paris, Cambodia, Indonesia and Africa where she commuted between Angola and Mozambique writing about death, destruction, diamonds and disease; after which she took a posting in Chechnya, three months after it gained independence from the Soviet Union.

In 1998 she published Crying Wolf: The Return of War to Chechnya; a second, more light-hearted book followed about post-Soviet Russia's illegal caviar trade titled The Taste of Dreams: An Obsession with Russia and Caviar (2003).

She now lives in North London with her husband and two small sons from where she writes a regular column for the London Times. Portrait of an Unknown Woman (published in the UK in 2006) is her first novel. Her second novel, Figures in Silk (sent in 15th century London about the silk trade and Richard III), published in the UK in May 2008.

She was inspired to write Portrait of an Unknown Woman after viewing a Holbein exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery some years ago. At the time she was living in Boris Yeltsin's New Russia, and was struck with how much the faces of the new Tudor aristocracy* resembled the tough, aggressive, on-the-make faces of the successful new capitalists she saw in Moscow every day.

*Many of Henry VIII's leading advisers, including the four Thomases (More, Cranmer, Cromwell and Wolsey), were the sons or grandsons of tradesmen, who had improved their positions during the power vacuum following the War of the Roses (a war between two sides of the Plantagenet family over which side of their extended family had the right to the throne of England); by the end of the war many of the English nobility had been killed and Henry VII (with connections to the House of Lancaster but little claim to the throne) put an end to the Plantagenet in-fighting by taking the throne and marrying a princess from the House of York; his second son became Henry VIII.

Interesting links:

  • An interview with Vanora Bennet on BBC Radio's Woman's Hour (about 8 minutes) - once you arrive at the BBC's website, click the Listen to This Item link.
  • Vanora Bennet's website, with extensive background information including essays on religion and medicine in 16th century England, a timeline of events and portraits of many of the key players in Portrait of an Unknown Woman.
  • Jack Leslau's website, which sets out the theory about Holbein's paintings of the More family on which Portrait of an Unknown Woman is based. CAUTION: by definition, this website contains plot spoilers; therefore, we suggest you do not visit until after reading the book!
  • More information on Thomas More's Utopia and his history of Richard III.

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This "beyond the book article" relates to Portrait of an Unknown Woman. It originally ran in May 2007 and has been updated for the April 2008 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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