Romance, intrigue, politics,
religion and art come together in Vanora Bennett's
first novel, set against the backdrop of 16th
century England at a time when Protestants, Catholics
and humanists were set on a collision course.
The plot of Portrait of an Unknown Woman hinges on a hypothesis put forward recently by Jack Leslau that attempts to explain interesting differences between two very similar paintings, both believed to be by Holbein painted a few years apart, that portray the More family but with subtle differences between the two pictures. This theory is key to the entire plot of Portrait of an Unknown Woman but to go into any detail would result in a massive plot-spoiler. If you've read the book and want to know more, you'll find a link in the sidebar.
At the center of Portrait of an Unknown Woman is Meg Giggs, Sir Thomas More's twenty-three year old adopted daughter. Like all the More girls she has been educated to a far higher standard than is normal for the day and is well versed in Latin, Greek and the healing arts (More helped set up St Paul's school in London, that exists to this day, he then set up a home school along the same lines for his own children who became famous across Europe for their learning).
Although she is devoted to her family, events conspire to cause Meg to question everything she thought she knew about her own heart and about religion. As the danger to More and his family increases, two men vie for her heart: John Clement, a man with a murky past who is More's protégé and the family's former tutor; and the rough and ready artisan Holbein.
The Thomas More we meet in Portrait of an Unknown Woman is a far more tortured and complex character than the benign humanist and family man portrayed by the inestimable Paul Scofield (who died last month) in the 1966 movie The Man For All Seasons or, for that matter, the maligned adviser to Henry VIII found in my childhood history books, who lost his head for sticking to his principles.
Bennett's Thomas More embraced new thinking in his youth encouraged by the friendship of humanists such as Erasmus, but as he gets older he grows increasingly fearful of the growing movement against the Catholic church driven by people's desire to read the Bible in English. Fearing for the very soul of England, More goes to ruthless extremes to stamp out the heretics who, daring to read the Bible in their own language, start to question the very tenets of the Catholic faith and the priests who, until that time, had a virtual monopoly on the interpretation of the faith because the vast majority of the population could not read Latin.
It seems that it's one thing for educated humanists such as Erasmus and More to sit around pontificating about changes to the church but quite different when the common people start taking things into their own hands!
Of course, as we all know, the great irony in More's life is that his master, King Henry VIII, raised in the Catholic faith, known as the Defender of the Faith for his writings against Luther (ghost written by More), breaks with Rome in order to expedite his marriage to Anne Boleyn and seize the massive tracts of English land owned by the church - thus pitting More against both the King and the new Protestant court.
Bennett's writing is a little overwrought at times, but this is at heart a love-story so a little overwriting is easy to forgive. Also, a couple of times a character refers to very recent events with more of an historian's eye than is perhaps credible (but nevertheless is a convenient tool for the reader).
However, Bennett's ability to conjure up the smells, sights and sounds of 16th century London is unbeatable. Particularly moving are her depictions of everyday folk hearing the "Word of the Lord" in their own language for the first time and the powerful feelings that this engenders. In addition, her explanations of a number of Holbein's paintings will be of interest to all who have enjoyed books such as Tracy Chevalier's Girl With A Pearl Earring.
This review was originally published in May 2007, and has been updated for the April 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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