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Portrait of an Unknown Woman: A Novel
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Portrait of an Unknown Woman: A Novel

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by Vanora Bennett

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In the year 1527, the great portraitist Hans Holbein, fleeing the Protestant Reformation, comes to England under commission to Sir Thomas More. Over the course of the next six years, Holbein paints two nearly identical portraits of the More family, his dear and loyal friends. But closer examination of the second painting reveals several mysteries. . . .



In the year 1527, the great portraitist Hans Holbein, fleeing the Protestant Reformation, comes to England under commission to Sir Thomas More. Over the course of the next six years, Holbein paints two nearly identical portraits of the More family, his dear and loyal friends. But closer examination of the second painting reveals several mysteries. . . .

Set against the turmoil and tragedy of Henry VIII's court, Portrait of an Unknown Woman vividly evokes sixteenth-century England on the verge of enormous change—as viewed through the eyes of Meg Giggs, More's intelligent, tenderhearted, headstrong adopted daughter, who stands at the center of this sweeping, extraordinary epic. It is a tale of sin and religion, desire and deception—the story of a young woman on the brink of sensual awakening and a country on the edge of mayhem.

Editorial Reviews

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During the reign of King Henry VIII, 16th-century England was the scene of great turmoil between Church and State -- a time of religious strife with voices clamoring for reformation, countered by charges of heresy and execution. In this crisis, one man stood out as the great defender of tradition: Sir Thomas More.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman is historical fiction at its best, rich in detail and observation that dares to choose as its setting the household of More. It is a novel that unfolds from an oblique angle, revealing itself not through More's eyes but through the eye of his young ward, Meg Giggs -- the unknown woman. Meg is a wholly realized creation, a young, headstrong woman schooled from childhood in the healing arts. A woman who, in time, will be torn between her loyalty, duty, and devotion to the More family and the call of her passions and conscience. Two men will vie for the heart and mind of young Meg: John Clement, her former tutor, a quiet man with a past shrouded in mystery; and Hans Holbein, the famous artist who twice painted portraits of More and his family.

In Portrait of an Unknown Woman, Bennett has penned a suspenseful family drama with countless twists and turns, a revealing lesson on art and painting, and a most satisfying love story, all set against and within the rich historical time and tapestry of Tudor England. A remarkable debut novel. (Summer 2007 Selection)
Publishers Weekly

British journalist Bennett (Crying Wolf: The Return of War to Chechnya) makes her fiction debut with a sweeping reinterpretation of Sir Thomas More's family as it coped with the vicissitudes of Henry VIII's reign. Narrated by More's brilliant foster daughter, Meg Giggs, the narrative is framed by two paintings crafted five years apart by husky, ebullient German artist Hans Holbein; commissioned by the family, each was completed at radically different periods in the More clan's turbulent history. As the book opens, family tutor John Clement stimulates both Meg's apothecary interest and engages her in a love affair; she eventually marries him and bears him a son, though aware that Holbein also has romantic potential. As John, whose origins are shrouded in mystery, grows distant, Holbein returns to London to paint the More family again. Meanwhile, the Reformation bleeds across Europe, inciting religious upheaval, and Meg's staunch Catholic father continues to violently defend his faith against Protestant heretics. Duplicity involving Meg's flirtatious sister, Elizabeth, provides the novel's rousing climax. The vernacular doesn't quite hold, and the religious-political speechifying can be heavy-handed. But Bennett constructs lush backdrops and costumes, and has impeccable historical sense. She luminously shades in an ambiguous period with lavish strokes of humanity, unbridled passion and mystery. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

A journalist whose books include The Taste of Dreams: An Obsession with Russia and Caviar, Bennett proves equally adept at breathing life into a novel of the turbulent period of European history known as the Protestant Reformation. At the center of her tale is Meg Giggs, a ward of statesman Sir Thomas More. Although Meg marries fellow More ward John Celment, she finds herself attracted to German portraitist Hans Holbein, who paints the extended More clan twice within a six-year period. During this time, Sir Thomas is elevated to the position of chancellor but resigns when he realizes that the king is determined to break with the Church of Rome to marry Anne Boleyn. The Mores—daughters as well as sons—are Renaissance humanists who love the new learning but also respect the institutions of the past, including the Roman Catholic Church. Bennett develops her characters fully by revealing both their romantic and their religious inner conflicts. With this interweaving of historical fact and imaginative characterization, she creates a multidimensional work of fiction. Readers of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earringwill enjoy this debut novel for its elucidation of Holbein's symbolism. Included is a bibliography of historical sources; a reader's group guide is available online. Highly recommended.
—Loralyn Whitney

Kirkus Reviews
In Henry VIII's England, a spirited heroine grows from impulsive girl to wiser woman as religious intolerance rages. British journalist Bennett's first novel takes a sober approach to a well-trod patch of English history. Her educated heroine, Meg Giggs, is a ward in the home of Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More, giving her a ringside seat overlooking the terrible drama of religious conflict. More is committed to defending the Catholic faith, which is coming under threat from the heretics, i.e., Lutheran Protestants. As Hans Holbein arrives to paint what will be his famous portrait of More and family, Meg comes back into contact with the man she always loved, John Clement, and with whom she shares healing aspirations. (She is an herbalist; he has been studying medicine.) John declares his love and intention to marry Meg, but More blocks the wedding until John is elected to the College of Physicians. Eventual plans for the union are eclipsed by John's revelation that he is, in fact, Richard Plantagenet, one of the two princes assumed murdered by Richard III. But the wedding finally proceeds, initially happily, and a son is born. Suppression of the heretics, led by More, intensifies, with torture and burnings at the stake, resulting in Meg losing faith in her adopted father. When her husband reveals another important secret, she becomes estranged from him, too. The king, desperate for an heir and seeking a divorce in order to marry Anne Boleyn, begins to side with the Protestants, and More resigns. Holbein returns, now a better artist with an undying admiration for Meg, leading to the exposure of additional secrets and Meg's final decision to opt for forgiveness and reconciliation. Anengrossing, quietly impassioned historical that blends some big ideas into the love story and ends with a touching burst of emotional insight.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

Portrait of an Unknown Woman A Novel

By Vanora Bennett William Morrow Copyright © 2007 Vanora Bennett
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-125927-2

Chapter One The house was turned upside down and inside out on the day the painter was to arrive. It was obvious to the meanest intelligence that everyone was in a high state of excitement about the picture the German was to make of us. If anyone had asked me, I would have said vanity comes in strange guises. But no one did. We weren't admitting to being so worldly. We were a godly household, and we never forgot our virtuous modesty.

The excuse for all the bustle was that it was the first day of spring-or at least the first January day with a hint of warmth in the air-a chance to scrub and shake and plump and scrape at every surface, visible and invisible, on a mansion that was only a year old, had cost a king's fortune, and scarcely needed any more primping and preening to look good in the sunshine. From dawn onward, there were village girls polishing every scrap of wood in the great hall. More girls upstairs were turning over feather pillows and patting quilts and brushing off tapestries and letting in fresh air and strewing pomanders and lavender in chests. The hay was changed in the privies. The fireplaces were scraped clean and laid with aromatic apple logs. By the time we came back from matins, with the sun still not high in the sky, there were already clankings and choppings from the kitchen, the squawking death agony of birds, and the smell of boiling savories. We daughters (all, not necessarily by coincidence, in our beribboned, embroidered spring best) were put to work dusting off the lutes and viols on the shelf and arranging music. And outside, where our stepmother, Dame Alice, kept finding herself on her majestic if slightly fretful tour of her troops (casting a watchful eye up the river to check what boats might be heading toward our stairs), there was what seemed to be Chelsea's entire supply of young boys, pruning back the mulberry tree. The mulberry tree had been Father's first flourish as a landowner-its Latin name, Morus, is what he called himself in Latin too (and he was self-deprecating enough to think it funny that Morus also meant "the fool").

It was the garden that kept drawing everyone outside, and the ribbon of river you could see from Father's favorite part of the garden, the raised area that gave the best possible view of London-the rooftops and the smoke and the church spires-which used to be our home until, by the grace of our king, Henry VIII, we got quite so rich and powerful, and which Father, almost as much as I, couldn't bear to pass a day without seeing.

First Margaret and her husband, Will Roper, came out. The oldest of the More children and my adopted sister, Margaret was twenty-two, a bit more than a year younger than me; but they were already so long settled in their shared happiness that they'd forgotten what it was to be alone. Then Cecily with her new husband, Giles Heron, and Elizabeth with hers, William Dauncey, all four younger than me, Elizabeth only eighteen, and all smirking with the secret pleasure of newlyweds, not to mention the more obvious pleasure of those who had had the good fortune to make advantageous marriages. Then Grandfather, old Sir John More, puffed up and dignified in a fur-trimmed cape. And young John, the youngest of the four More children, shivering in his undershirt, so busy peering upriver that he started absentmindedly pulling leaves off a rosebush and scrunching them into tiny folds until Dame Alice materialized next to him, scolded him roundly for being destructive, and sent him off to wrap up more warmly against the river breezes. Then Anne Cresacre, another ward like me, managing, in her irritating way, to look artlessly pretty as she arranged her fifteen-year-old self and a piece of embroidery. In my view there was no need for all of her humming and smiling. With all the money and estates she'd been left by her parents, Father would have John marry her the day she came of age. Of all his wards, it was only me he seemed to have forgotten to marry off, but then I was several years too old to marry his only son. Anne Cresacre didn't need to try half so hard. Especially since you could see from the doggy way John looked at her that he'd been in love with her all his life.

The sun came out on young John's face as he came back, better dressed now for the gusty weather, and he screwed up his eyes against the harshness of the light. And suddenly the peevish ill temper that had been with me through a winter of other people's celebrations-a joint wedding for Cecily and Elizabeth and their husbands, followed by Christmas celebrations for our whole newly extended family-seemed to pass, and I felt a pang of sympathy for John. "Have you got your headache again?" I asked him in a whisper. He nodded, trying like me not to draw attention. His head ached all the time; his eyes weren't strong enough for the studying that made up so much of our time, and he was always anxious that he wasn't going to perform well enough to please Father or impress pretty Anne. I put a hand through his arm and drew him away down the path to where we'd planted the vervain the previous spring. We both knew it helped with his headaches, but the clump that had survived was still woody and wintry. "There's some dried stuff in the pantry," I whispered. "I'll make you a garland when we get back to the house, and you can lie down with it for a while after dinner." He didn't say anything, but I could sense his gratitude from the way he squeezed my hand.


Excerpted from Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett Copyright © 2007 by Vanora Bennett. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Vanora Bennett is the author of two acclaimed novels, Portrait of an Unknown Woman and Figures in Silk, and an award-winning journalist. She has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, the Times Literary Supplement, The Times (London), and the BBC. She lives in North London with her husband and two children.

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Portrait of an Unknown Woman 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 40 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thorougly enjoyed this book...it took a few pages to get into it, but once past those few pages, I couldn't put the book down. I read a great deal of historical fiction from this time period and what I appreciated and enjoyed about this book is it was not about "Court life" during Henry VIII's reign....but the effects that the intrigue of the Court life and the regligious upheaval within the Court had on everyone from the players of the Court itself down to the most poor - between Henry VIII's constant battle with the Pope and Martin Luther's Reformation, it was a pretty tumulteous time period and the book brought all those fears to life for us. In reading this book, I got a better understanding of the undercurrent felt by all during Reformation. No side is without blame regarding the horrific events that happened (don't forget, Bloody Mary was up after Henry). It was well written and although a few liberties were taken with a couple of events - since its a mystery regarding the one particular event - no harm, no foul and made the book an even better read (won't say what it is - you have to read it yourself!) Great book - great read..
kiminindy More than 1 year ago
my daughter gave this to me for my birthday. at first it as very slow. i didn't want to offend her so i plodded along. after awhile it really drew me in and became very interesting. it even enticed me to hunt down the holbein's at the national gallery of art recently.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love the concept of an imagined biography of a lady in a portrait, though this one didn't create a new world in my mind as the "Girl in the Pearl Earring" did. I am a historian, though only marginally of this period of English history, and I didn't find this as offensively anachronistic as many novels set in this period of fine costumes. I liked the portrait of Holbein very much. Not a great book, but a good read. But we needed to have copies of the key pictures provided!
harstan More than 1 year ago
Henry VIII is increasingly shutting down religious freedom at a time when Catholicism is under siege from an assortment of heresies. Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More becomes the defender of the faith.----------------- Observing the battle of religions is More¿s intelligent ward Meg Giggs. As renowned artist Hans Holbein paints a portrait of More and his family, Meg sees her former tutor John Clement, whom she not only loves but shares a common interest in healing. John wants to wed Meg, but Sir Thomas has doubts until the young doctor is appointed to the College of Physicians. However before they can exchange their vows, John reveals that he is Richard Plantagenet, one of the two princes allegedly killed by the late former monarch Richard III. They marry and have a child, but as he moves apart from her emotionally, she turns to Holbein who is working on another More family portrait five years after he completed the first commission while her sister seductively flirts with the men in her life.------------------ This is a well written historical drama of an often told story of the battle between King Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More, but Vanora Bennett freshens the saga by using an a first hand witness of the entanglement. The story line is fast-paced except at those moments when the politicians debate religious freedom as those passages are much deeper and cerebral. Mel is a fabulous intelligent protagonist who, in spite of the great men of history who the focus is indirectly on, serves as the center of the exciting story line. Fans of sixteenth century character driven tales will appreciate this insightful look at an early skirmish in the war for religious freedom.----------- Harriet Klausner
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a very enjoyable read. The writing was fluid and the story held my attention. While the story line/plot of one of the main characters is a bit far fetched in terms of historical accuracy, the descriptions of homes, cities, life, and events in 16th century England allow a history lover like myself to easily enjoy this book. The author is also careful to write in a side note what is actually true, and what is fiction in the story. A nice read for a European history lover! A perfect historical fiction read!
StacieRosePittard More than 1 year ago
Portrait of an Unknown Woman was an alright read. The story took place at an interesting point in history, however, I felt that the author dropped the ball when it came to using that history to create an interesting story. I grew quite bored with the bland love triangles Vanora Bennett described in this novel, and felt myself waiting for her to elaborate on the conflicts of the time period. She did a wonderful job of introducing those conflicts, but by the end of the book I felt dissatisfied. I wanted to know more about the history and how it effected the people in the story. It was especially irritating to read about the outcomes of the characters in the notes at the end of the book. Some of them had an interesting outcome, but she didn't bother including that in the narrative.
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emilyfan76 More than 1 year ago
The book was ok. I didn't find the plot to be all the believable though.
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miss_dobie More than 1 year ago
A magnificent story about Thomas More and his family from the viewpoint of one of his daughters. This book gives you a whole different perspective on the man and involves you with his entire family. It's absolutely great and well worth the time to read. A must-read for lovers of Tudor England as it rounds things out nicely.
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