Click here to read reviewer Kathryn J. Atwood's take on Portrait of an Unknown Woman.
The background for this taut historical novel is the uneasy reign of Henry VIII and the pursuit of the king’s Great Matter, a divorce from Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. Seen from the perspective of the adoptive daughter of Sir Thomas More, Meg Griggs, the unfolding drama is threaded with the religious upheaval of the reformation and More’s fervent Christianity and loyalty to the Catholic Church.
Sir Thomas More, the king’s putative heretic hunter, avidly supports the education of his family, including the women; nevertheless, he is very much a traditionalist when it comes to religion. While he serves the king, More’s rise to power is stunning, but as the divorce from the queen becomes inevitable, the conflict between the old and the new religion poses a threat both to More and his family.
While the driving force of the king’s argument is his need for a legitimate male heir, Henry is quickly seduced by the power he gains by taking away Rome’s ultimate authority, thereby establishing the king as the moral voice of the Church of England. More’s children watch his rise to success with chagrin, realizing the danger of their father’s growing fanaticism and ultimate conflict with the king.
For her part, Meg adores her father, repelled by his increasing fanaticism but yearning for his approval. She has long been enamored of the More family’s childhood tutor, John Clement, but the marriage is delayed by the conditions More puts upon Clement before he will approve. Certainly More’s reservations are not misplaced, as Clement has a long and complicated history that puts both him and his intended bride at risk. It falls to Meg to make a difficult decision once she understands the secrets her fiancé has been hiding.
Into this family scene comes portraitist Hans Holbein, fleeing a boring marriage and the violent reformation that has flooded Europe. Holbein is a classic painter of the era, using symbols liberally in his art, his work always more complicated than it first appears. Attracted to Meg, Holbein shares his passion with the young woman; although she does not return the affection, Meg appreciates the artist’s genius and worries that his reform views will put him at odds with her father.
As Meg struggles with her husband’s dark secrets, her visceral reaction to the persecution of the reformed Christians and an increasing affection for the simple devotion offered by Hans Holbein, she must come to terms with More’s intransigence and confusing affection, accepting the fact that he is “a medieval man through and through.” While her love for Clement remains constant, an appreciation of the painter’s genius threatens Meg’s ordered life.
As intricate as the unique paintings of Hans Holbein, Bennett’s take on tumultuous sixteenth-century England is flavored by religious persecution, one man’s quest for anonymity and safety, and the unrequited love of an artist for his fascinating subject.