Historical Fiction: Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

5.0 out of 5 stars Secrets within secrets

The Thomas More of 2007 is a saint and a cultural icon. But he was far from perfect, and certainly ought not to be confused with the paragon depicted in A Man for All Seasons. In Portrait of an Unknown Woman, Vanora Bennett brings some humanity, flaws and all, to the cardboard image.

This imaginative look into the lives of the very large More family, embedded as they were into the very heart of the religious wars that forever changed English culture, appears to have been grounded upon analysis of the composition of the More family portrait painted by German artist Hans Holbein. The interpretive theory, explicated by Jack Lesau at the website of the Hans Holbein Foundation, proposes the ideas around which the plot of Unknown Woman revolves.

Thomas More is depicted here as a sincere, but at times fanatical, hunter of heretics. At times, his actions are questionable, to say the least. His children, all adults at the time of the novel’s setting, are all brilliantly educated and conversant with the classics and the major schools of thought of their day, particularly humanism. Nevertheless they are constrained to live in accordance with the morals and mores of their era. At the center of the plot stands Meg Giggs Clement, known to have been the ward of More. I will not go into the various plot twists and turns for fear of spoilers, but, whether or not these family secrets and surprises are true, they unfold ever so gradually and make for good reading. This is a work of fiction, after all, not a biography. Portrait of an Unknown Woman presents a beautifully written, vivid, and memorable glimpse into the life of those people fortunate or unfortunate enough to have lived during the turbulent, world shaking reign of Henry VIII.


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