Thursday, October 29, 2009

Portrait of an Unknown Woman

by Vanora Bennett

Portrait of an Unknown Woman tells the story of Renaissance portrait painter Hans Holbein and Sir Thomas More through the eyes of one of More's adopted children, Meg Giggs. Taking place during the turbulent years of Henry VIII's obsession with Anne Boleyn the book protrays the uncertainty that surrounded the time. At the beginning of the book, the More family is on the rise, having recently moved to their grand country house from London. It is in this light that Hans Holbein arrives to paint a portrait of More and one of his family. Holbein is drawn to Meg and fancies himself in love with her. Meg however is blinded by the return of her one time tutor, John Clement. Meg, having been in love with John for years, quickly finds out her affections are returned and eventually they marry. John's past however is clouded in secrecy. These secrets eventually have an effect on the relationship between Meg and John.

By the end of the book, 5 years later, when Holbein returns to again paint the More family, thier fortunes are on a downward spiral. As Henry seeks a annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragaon and is more drawn to the new "reformed religion", More's strong Catholic beliefs and his campaign to destroy heretics puts him in a precarious situation with the King. Secrets among More's children, wards and their spouses also come to light, putting a strain on the family from within.

What I enjoyed most about the book is the liberal poetic liscence the author took with the historical facts. Amidst the very accurate timeline, social climate of the time and a very historically accurate cast of characters, she creates some very interesting twists, many of which involve they mystery of the Princes in the Tower. While I had most of them figured out , long before they were revealed in the story, it was a very interesting twist on an age old historical mystery.

What I learned most from the book however was just how fanatical More was. He feared the rise of the reformed church so much so that he kept and tortured heretics at his country home. He actively sought out heretics and as a servant of the Crown, brought back the burning of heretics. One of the most memorable scenes from the book involves Meg witnessing a burning and being accousted by the crowd. When she realizes her own father was responsible, her world begins to fall apart, mirroring the destruction of her own family.

Rating - A

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