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Portrait of an Unknown Woman    by Vanora Bennett order for
Portrait of an Unknown Woman
by Vanora Bennett
Order:  USA  Can
William Morrow, 2007 (2007)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

When most of us think of the reign of Henry VIII, we start by trying to recall the names of his long list of wives, and their generally sad fates. Reading Portrait of an Unknown Woman has made me see that era in an entirely different light, as a time when a growing intellectual enlightenment was curtailed by religious fanaticism.

Vanora Bennett uses what is becoming a popular literary device for historical novels - that is paintings and an artist's eye - to reveal relationships and secrets within the large extended family of Sir Thomas More. He was a lawyer, a devout Catholic, and a leading humanist scholar (he coined the term utopia in a novel of that name) who rose to become Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, a monarch whom he later defied, leading to his execution (he was canonized centuries later). We see More, through the eyes of his well educated, highly intelligent foster daughter Meg Giggs, as the beloved (though busy with affairs of state and his writings) head of a large household.

The novel opens on the first day of spring as the family anticipates the arrival of a young German painter, Hans Holbein, sent by Erasmus, a European scholar and old friend of More. But when a boat docks at the riverside estate, it brings two guests - not only the painter but also John Clement, once tutor to the More children. Long absent from their lives, Clement is the man Meg has always loved. Now he declares his feelings for her. Though overjoyed, Meg has darker things on her mind that she's been unable to share with anyone else. She shows John the western gatehouse, where More has imprisoned (and Meg fears also tortured) a humble shoemaker accused of heresy. She can't reconcile the humane and loving father she adores with the man who could do this to another human being.

Through the novel, Meg struggles with that dilemma, loving her adoptive father, but also horrified by what he does in the name of his Catholic faith, to uphold tradition against those '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.' Though she eventually weds her first love and has his child, many surprising secrets are unveiled, that pull them apart. She also grows to despise John for what she considers his 'moral abdication'. At the same time, Meg and married artist Hans have a meeting of minds as well as a strong physical attraction to each other. We also see Holbein's creative development of the two very different More family portraits - the first 'an invitation to nostalgia' and a second that reveals too many deep truths.

We share the artist's thoughts as he satisfies another commission, 'showing a world that had once been united by religious harmony but that was now being destroyed by nationalist ugliness and factional feuding.' This contrast of a caring family with religious fanaticism run wild is set against the background of Sir Thomas More's rise in power - when he meets the king's desires - and his fall, after strong principles make him refuse to do so. Portrait of an Unknown Woman is an absorbing story of secrets and family in that historical era that always intrigues, the reign of Henry VIII.

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