Summary and book reviews of Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

Portrait of an Unknown Woman

A Novel

by Vanora Bennett

Portrait of an Unknown Woman
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Apr 2007, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2008, 464 pages

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Book Summary

The year is 1527. The great portraitist Hans Holbein, who has fled the reformation in Europe, is making his first trip to England under commission to Sir Thomas More. In the course of six years, Holbein will become a close friend to the More family and paint two nearly identical family portraits. But closer examination of the paintings reveals that the second holds several mysteries...

Set against the turmoil, intrigue and, tragedy of Henry VIII's court, Portrait of an Unknown Woman vividly evokes sixteenth-century England on the verge of enormous change. As the Protestant Reformation sweeps across Europe to lap at England's shores, relations between her king and the Catholic Church begin to plummet-driven by Henry VIII's insatiable need for a male heir and the urgings of his cunning mistress Anne Boleyn-and heresy begins to take hold. As tensions rise, Henry VIII turns to his most trusted servant and defender of Catholic orthodoxy, Sir Thomas More to keep peace in England, but soon the entire More family find their own lives at risk.

At the center of Portrait of an Unknown Woman is Meg Gigg's, Sir Thomas More's twenty-three year old adopted daughter. Intelligent, headstrong, and tender-hearted, Meg has been schooled in the healing arts. And though she is devoted to her family, events conspire that will cause Meg to question everything she thought she knew-including the desires of her own heart. As the danger to More and his family increases, two men will vie for Meg's affections: John Clement, her former tutor and More's protégé who shares Meg's passion for medicine, but whose true identity will become unclear, and the great Holbein, who's artistic vision will forever alter her understanding of the world.

With a striking sense of period detail Portrait of an Unknown Woman is an unforgettable story of sin and religion, desire and deception. It is the story of a young woman on the brink of sensual awakening and of a country on the edge of mayhem.

Excerpt
Portrait of an Unknown Woman

It was just a room. A mean little room at the back of a mean little house, under All Hallows. But it was a room full of God.

‘Bet you’d like to see how I make my remedies,’ Davy had said – almost a taunt – when I took myself with cloak and basket round the apothecaries and stopped at his tatty display. He grinned for the passers-by. ‘Bet you’ve never seen real unicorn’s horn, eh, missis?’

The street boys cackled and poked each other with their elbows. I swallowed, ignored them, and nodded, wondering whether he was really just a lunatic after all, and he loped off eastwards, looking behind to make sure I was following.

He went on muttering. I caught some words on the wind as I hurried along behind, but nothing that made any sense. Once he turned round with a mad laugh and waved a dirty bottle taken from his pocket at me. ‘Elixir of truth!’ he shrieked cheerfully. ‘...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book

It is 1527. The English Renaissance is in full swing under the young King Henry VIII. The young German painter Hans Holbein, who has come to London to seek his fortune, is delighted when he gets a commission to paint the family of Thomas More, one of England's leading statesman and men of learning, at his country home in Chelsea.

The story is seen through the eyes of More's young ward Meg, and shows her growing feelings for her tutor, a man of mysterious background called John Clement, whom she will marry, and for Holbein himself, whom she will love. This complex of emotions is played out against a backdrop of worsening religious intolerance in England and across Europe. More, a devout Catholic, ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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. However, her ability to conjure up the smells, sights and sounds of 16th century London is unbeatable.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (884 words).

Media Reviews

Entertainment Weekly - Rebecca Ascher-Walsh

Bennett has a rich imagination, but her writing is plodding at best and histrionic at worst. She writes of Meg experiencing ''hot, wet passion,'' but the reader, after one too many overwrought sentences, is more likely to feel slimed. C+

Boston Globe - Michèle Roberts

Bennett had a good idea for a historical novel: try to imagine what it was like to love a father you suspected of enjoying the torture of heretics. Try to imagine daily life in Anne Boleyn's London. Unfortunately, as the author nears her conclusion, her writing becomes increasingly sentimental.

Sunday Telegraph (London)

The historical detail is excellent and the story, featuring Sir Thomas More, Hans Holbein and other B-list Tudor celebrities, has enough twists to keep readers on their toes. The tang of daily Tudor life, with strangers lurking in dark alleys and the horrors of the plague never far away, is conveyed with skill and feeling.

Publishers Weekly

She luminously shades in an ambiguous period with lavish strokes of humanity, unbridled passion and mystery.

Kirkus Reviews

An engrossing, quietly impassioned historical that blends some big ideas into the love story and ends with a touching burst of emotional insight.

Library Journal

[I]nterweaving historical fact and imaginative characterization, she creates a multidimensional work of fiction...Highly recommended.

The Guardian

[S]he also seeks through Meg's eyes to reconcile the paradox of More the humanist with More the religious conservative, ruthlessly defending the Faith. Here, as when John Clement passes comment on Tudor history worthy of a modern historian, the tread of a 21st-century sensibility intrudes on what is otherwise an enjoyable read.

The Observer (London)

As the novel unfolds, she [Meg Giggs] shrewdly chronicles the changing political and religious climate as it impacts on the More household and her own life. Holbein is brought ebulliently to life and the overall result is solid, uncomplicated historical fiction, puffed out with all the lavish details of costume and cuisine that its fans expect.

The Times (London)

This is several cuts above the usual history-lite - part love story, part thriller, all excellently imagined and written.

Daily Mail (London)

This blockbuster is nothing if not distinguished. Told in consistently well-upholstered prose, this is the perfect tale for autumn. Romance, intrigue and art history are confidently blended, and Holbein's canvases are afforded starring roles.

Author Blurb Iain Pears, author of An Instance of the Fingerpost
Rich in period detail, full of human passion, Portrait of an Unknown Woman mingles art, politics and family drama to evoke the period when humanism was taking root in England. A fascinating tale, skilfully told and highly recommended.

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Beyond the Book

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...

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