Monday, June 28, 2010
The year is 1526. Hans Holbein the Younger is at the beginning of his remarkable career when he travels to England under the patronage of Sir Thomas More. His arrival brings the Renaissance in painting from Europe to Britain. As a guest in the splendid More household in Chelsea, Holbein begins to paint their first family portrait. Little could he know that in a few short years, the family, Tudor society and England itself would have changed beyond recognition. The great household of the courtier and scholar, Sir Thomas More, was famous for its liveliness and learning. More had taken under his patronage distinguished astrologers, artists, politicians and men of religion, as well as wards of court, protégés and many others. Two people visiting the great house find themselves irresistibly drawn to Meg Giggs, one of More's foster daughters. One of them is John Clement - dark, tall, elegant - an erstwhile tutor, now practising to become a medical doctor; a man of compelling presence and mysterious background. The other is Holbein himself - warm, ebullient, radical and foreign - sent by the great Erasmus to paint the More family portraits. Meg will find herself powerfully drawn to these two wildly contrasting men. She will love one, and marry the other. The two Holbein family portraits frame this remarkable story with its background of love, family, and of religious and political turmoil. Vanora Bennett has created an exceptionally rich novel, presenting the atmosphere of this Tudor household as rarely achieved.
I am not sure where I got this book from, but I am really glad I did. I probably got it from a used bookstore. Although an accomplished journalist, Portrait of an Unknown Woman is Vanora Bennett's first work of fiction. It is exceptionally good for a debut. Some plot points in the beginning are predictable, but towards the middle and end there are some pleasant and surprising twists. The characters are well developed and likable. That is one thing that I love about bigger books (this one is just over 500 pages), there is more room for character development. Bennett's writing is somewhat reminiscent of Philippa Gregory. The comparison between these two authors is unavoidable mostly because this book covers roughly the same time period as Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl. I think I liked Portrait of an Unknown Woman slightly better than Gregory's books, mainly because it concentrates less on the love affairs of the characters. I like how Bennett focused on the creation of the painting, the relationship between Meg and her adopted father Thomas More, and the politics of the time. I am really glad that I didn't overlook this book and that I finally picked it up from my bookshelf. I will definitely read more of Bennett's work.