Sunday, February 26, 2012
Book Thoughts - Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett
Synopsis from publisher:
The year is 1527. The great portraitist Hans Holbein, who has fled the reformation in Europe, is making his first trip to England under commission to Sir Thomas More. In the course of six years, Holbein will become a close friend to the More family and paint two nearly identical family portraits. But closer examination of the paintings reveals that the second holds several mysteries...
Set against the turmoil, intrigue and, tragedy of Henry VIII's court, Portrait of an Unknown Woman vividly evokes sixteenth-century England on the verge of enormous change. As the Protestant Reformation sweeps across Europe to lap at England's shores, relations between her king and the Catholic Church begin to plummet-driven by Henry VIII's insatiable need for a male heir and the urgings of his cunning mistress Anne Boleyn-and heresy begins to take hold. As tensions rise, Henry VIII turns to his most trusted servant and defender of Catholic orthodoxy, Sir Thomas More to keep peace in England, but soon the entire More family find their own lives at risk.
At the center of Portrait of an Unknown Woman is Meg Gigg's, Sir Thomas More's twenty-three year old adopted daughter. Intelligent, headstrong, and tender-hearted, Meg has been schooled in the healing arts. And though she is devoted to her family, events conspire that will cause Meg to question everything she thought she knew-including the desires of her own heart. As the danger to More and his family increases, two men will vie for Meg's affections: John Clement, her former tutor and More's prote ge who shares Meg's passion for medicine, but whose true identity will become unclear, and the great Holbein, who's artistic vision will forever alter her understanding of the world.
Okay, I KNOW that someone in the blogosphere has raved about this author - I KNOW IT. Of course, now I can't figure out who that person was to thank them. Whoever you are out there, who swore that Vanora Bennett would blow my socks off - thank you! You were so right!
I love historical fiction. I've loved it for years. I particularly love the Tudors. There's just something about them that I can't get enough of. I read through every Jean Plaidy novel that my hometown library carried, probably 3 times, moved on to Phillipa Gregory, even dove into Alison Weir. I even waded through Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which has to be the least exciting novel about the period ever. So when I saw Portrait... in the bookstore, and put together the author and the subject matter, I was sold.
Reading this novel makes me feel like I've graduated somehow - I don't deny that I have read nearly every Phillipa Gregory novel from cover to cover, even though I know they are pretty light on the "historical" part of the fiction. But this novel felt like moving from the fluff to the real thing - this was thoughtful and intelligent and emotional without going over the top like Gregory tends to do. It's hard to go wrong with such fascinating characters as the Mores, and Bennett does justice to this remarkable family. Meg Giggs is a delightful heroine, and while she is fully a woman of her time, Bennett gives her enough strength of mind and will that she doesn't seem backwards.
One of the things I was most impressed with was Bennett's ability to give insights into a character's thoughts or actions that actually made me reconsider my ideas about the situation. I've always found Thomas More to be one of the most enigmatic men in history - he began as such a forward thinker, and yet in his last years he was clearly a torturer and fanatic. In telling his story, Bennett was able to allow her readers a glimpse into the thought process that allowed him to make those decisions, and for the first time I began to understand what might have driven him to take the drastic actions he did. She made me understand the characters in ways I hadn't thought I could, and it was an exciting reading experience.
"But I also knew, deep down, that even if I'd stopped going to mass myself - the sonorous sounds of Latin and the solemnity of plainsong that I'd grown up loving now seemed tinged with cruelty - I'd never truly find my own God here. I couldn't believe in the ragings of Luther any more than in the fury of my father. Part of me knew that what I really wanted from those cellar meetings was just to be inspired by the willingness of so many fishwives and market women and tanners and weavers to endanger their lives for a taste of the truth. I wanted to believe that their passionate act of rebellion against what they believed to be the age-old lies of the church was the same as the rebellion I was mounting against the lies I'd discovered in my life; but I knew in my heart they were different." (Meg Giggs, p. 262)
I enjoyed this novel so much. The only tiny, little thing that bugged me was that it seemed like the ending wrapped up just a bit too quickly - after so much time with this family, a couple of extra chapters to give them closure would have been nice. But it was such a small quibble in such a great work. I can't wait to read more by Bennett - if you are a historical fiction fan, you need to read this, too!
Source: my shelves
MPAA rating: PG-13 for adult situations
My rating: 8/10