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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)
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
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.
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.
"Bennett…creates a multidimensional work of fiction. Readers of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring will enjoy this…novel…. Highly recommended." Library Journal Starred Review