Portrait of an Unknown Woman: A Novel

Portrait of an Unknown Woman: A Novel

by Vanora Bennett


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British journalist Bennett makes her fiction debut with a sweeping reinterpretation of Sir Thomas Mores family as it coped with the vicissitudes of Henry VIIIs reign. Unabridged. 1 MP3 CD.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061252563
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/01/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.04(d)

About 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.

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.
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Portrait of an Unknown Woman 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 47 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!
koalamom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Meg Gibbs was orphaned at an early age and became the ward of Sir Thomas More, who was soon to become Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII.At 22 she yearns to marry John Clements but Sir Thomas wants the man to complete his education as a physician and have a position on the College of Physicians before that can happen. And then the secrets start coming out, secrets that will change lives.John, it seems, isn't who he says he is and his real life should it become known, could cause it to come to an end. Meg turns to helping the poor and Catholic people in an era when Catholicism is becoming forbidden, but she hides it from those she loves. Sir Thomas works against his king and resigns and his life and his family's changes dramatically. Then Meg learns a truth about herself that explains many things and who is the father of her foster sister's child?Intrigue is the name of the game in Tudor England. Many are losing everything, including their lives for beliefs that are fast changing.And all this is shown in two portraits painted by Hans Holbein, an artist with a gift for painting the truth in his subjects and what truths he sees and what feelings he has for Meg - feelings that are returned, but only briefly as she discovers just how hard it would be to turn away from the family that loves her.In the author's note, the author states plainly that there is a lot more history here than in some historical novels and she gives a synopsis of what happened after the story she wove.
bridgetmarkwood on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What a great book! First, it is well written- easy to get lost in. Second, history has never been more alive. I learned a lot about medicine, family, art and other issues of the day. Well researched. Third, the author had great fun playing with some of the mysteries surrounding the royals and the More family. I found myself getting really excited about the historical connections and explanations. Also enjoyed that the author included factual history tidbits at the end of the book, so one could see what was fiction and what actually did happen. Cannot wait to read more Vanora Bennett. A real treat for historical fiction Anglophiles!
dianaleez on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Clever idea and fascinating book. I spent a lot of time looking at the portrait. Well researched and pleasingly written.
Jaelle on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Engrossing literary fiction with lots of accurate historical detail. If you like historical fiction and Jane Austen's depictions of family and social life, you will probably enjoy this novel.
cindyloumn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Lots of hx. Not real good, but not really bad. So you had to sort of keep reading it. It's the story of this painter who was real, Hans Holbein, and a picture he painted, and a story behind it. About this girl that was adopted in to this family and how she goes on to marry her tutor, who ends up to be some long lost heir to the throne, but never gets to pursue it. Lots of secrets that pop up.
mairi_k on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Another historical page-turner which takes a turn round the household of a historical figure, seen through the eyes of a step-daughter/wife/maid/etc. Step up Meg Giggs, attempting to marry the portrait in her head of her kindly humanist step-father Thomas More with Hans Holbein's sketch of the thin-lipped heretic-burning horror he has become. But that's not enough because the family tutor and dedicatee of Utopia she has just married has turned out to be one of - wait for it! - the princes in the tower. What a lot of twaddle. I don't think we can really get into the minds of men like More - unless, perhaps, by looking to those carrying out jihad around the world? - and Meg's character's facile wrestling with what seems like a very un-Tudor faith and her husband's totally improbable history does the history no justice.
queenreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Erasmus, Holbein, Thomas More, Henry VIII - their all here. Actually, this is an engaging novel about relationships set in humanist circles in Renaissance England. Accurately portrays the period thinking and society. Main character is Margaret Clemens (nee Roper) - interestingly drawn Renaissance woman. Loved the story, though the ending was kind of a dud.
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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