Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Portrait of an Unknown Woman.
In her historical fiction debut, Portrait of an Unknown Woman, Vanora Bennett brings a crucial slice of English history to life with compelling characterizations and a keen eye for period detail. Based on the rise and fall of humanist author and statesman Sir Thomas More during the English Reformation and the German artist, Hans Holbein, who created a painting of More’s family during that time, Portrait is a work rendered in stunning clarity and often breathtaking prose.
Although some readers may find the idea of Thomas More torturing anyone in the name of God quite bizarrely out of sync with his character as they understand it, Bennett’s characterizations all have the ring of authenticity within the framework of her novel. She has made Meg Giggs (Thomas More’s ward) a strong and thoughtful character and has believably placed her centrally in the vortex of the political and religious convergence of Reformation England. By doing so, Bennett is able to present the details of that turbulent era through Meg’s intelligent and sympathetic eyes.
The actual plot points move rather slowly during the book’s first half, but the reader is far too carried away by the novel’s intriguing, shadowy forebodings and compelling characterizations to actually notice this. When the plot does quicken its pace, Bennett reveals her genius – evident throughout the entire book – for seamlessly interweaving fiction with fact: “All through the spring and summer we lived apart from reality in our own joy. We paid no attention the day the poor devout queen went on her knees in the divorce court and swore, in her Spanish-accented voice, that she had come to the king’s bed a virgin all those years before, or to the stories of the look of disgust on the king’s face as he publicly pushed her away.”
In the current climate of increasingly strident ideologies, Bennet’s remarkably balanced and sympathetic portrayal of the novel’s central religious dispute is nothing short of miraculous. For instance, a Protestant character describes his new devotion to God in the following way: “there are people – like me – 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. People who believe that... all you have to do is truly believe and your sins will be forgiven...”
But Thomas More waxes no less lyrical regarding the beauties of Catholic worship when he describes it as “the sacred continuum that joins everyone alive now with every Christian from St. Augustine onward who has believed what we believe and worshiped as we worship. Take that away...lose the beauty of Latin, the common language that unifies all believers...and you’re left with nothing but the ranting and babbling of lunatics.”
Although the enjoyment of this book is greatly enhanced by a general understanding of Plantagenet/Tudor history, it is sure to please anyone with the slightest interest in beautiful writing and realistic characterizations set within a historical framework.