BookBrowse Reviews Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

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
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Apr 2007, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2008, 464 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse Review Team

Buy This Book

About this Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


With a striking sense of period detail Portrait of an Unknown Woman is an unforgettable story of sin and religion, desire and deception

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.



This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: To Siri with Love
    To Siri with Love
    by Judith Newman
    It is likely that you know someone who is impacted by autism: In 2017, the U.S. Centers for Disease ...
  • Book Jacket: The Story of Arthur Truluv
    The Story of Arthur Truluv
    by Elizabeth Berg
    Elizabeth Berg's heartwarming novel scored an an impressive 4.4 average rating from the 48 members ...
  • Book Jacket: The Last Ballad
    The Last Ballad
    by Wiley Cash
    Ella May WigginsA hundred years ago or so, farming land west of Charlotte, North Carolina was given over to giant ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers

At once a love story, a history lesson and a beautifully written tale of forgiveness.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Story of Arthur Truluv
    by Elizabeth Berg

    An emotionally powerful novel from New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Berg.
    Reader Reviews

Who Said...

When you are growing up there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which ...

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

Solve this clue:

E Dog H I D

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.