Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Review: Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

This book is a library find. I had read a review of it, wrote it down, but then proceeded to forget why I wanted to read it. Turns out, it's the first historical novel from the era of Henry VIII that I've read in years, but I'm sure glad I did.

The story is an embellishment on the true story of a young woman who had been raised as a ward of Sir Thomas More, author of Utopia, and the entire More family during the reign of Henry VIII until shortly before the arrest and execution of Sir Thomas More. It begins when More is a highly favored office holder under the king, but becomes more interesting as the king wants to annul his first marriage and marry Anne Boleyn, both because he's besotted with her and because he needs a son and heir. More is a devout Roman Catholic who views Anne Boleyn as an evil seductress and he will have nothing to do with the king's plans. This of course puts him and his entire family in extreme danger.

Meanwhile, the More children were, unlike most children of wealthy families, very well educated, even the girls. Meg is particularly bright and has a gift for medicine. She loves and eventually marries the man who had been their tutor, John Clement, a physician. In this story he is supposedly one of the princes who actually were murdered in the Tower of London; having been spirited away with his brother to be raised secretly in the countryside. Right, well I guess it makes a better novel this way. Another supposition is that Meg is in reality More's illegitimate daughter.

A large part of the story is based on the true story that Hans Holbein lived with the family for months and painted a portrait of the family. The painting actually exists. What didn't happen? The story has him falling in love with Meg. Again, it's a good story. Holbein is one of the best characters in the book, although my favorite was Meg. She is smart, brave, a questioner, and passionate. It seems like Bennett couldn't really get a handle on Sir Thomas More, but that's understandable because he was such a complex man.

More's book Utopia figures in this novel too, and it dawned on me that I had never read it, although I do own it. So now I'm finally reading a book that was a neglected part of my own education and I'm enjoying it - partly because I have a better picture of the time and the people. All in all, I'm happy to have read Portrait of an Unknown Woman and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical novels.

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