I didn’t write about Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett as soon as I’d finished reading it, which is a pity because I only made a few notes whilst reading and now my memory of it is fading fast. It took me some time to get really involved in the story, which is a mixture of fiction and history. I liked the historical elements very much. The fictional side mixed in quite well but I found some of it a bit too sentimental and somewhat contrived.
It’s the story of Sir Thomas More’s fall from Henry VIII’s favour and that of his adopted daughter Meg Giggs and her love for two men – John Clements, the family’s former tutor, and the painter, Hans Holbein. Bennett puts forward a theory about John Clements’ true identity drawn from an analysis and an interpretation of two paintings by Hans Holbein of the More family and also his painting, The Ambassadors. I was fascinated by this and the detail in the paintings, enhanced by the inclusion in the book of a reproduction of the plan for Holbein’s first portrait of the More Family painted in 1527 -28 and a colour reproduction of a second portrait of the family attributed to Holbein, even though it is signed ‘Rowlandas Lockey’.
I liked the way Bennett portrayed different aspects of Sir Thomas More’s character; in his early life he was a humanist and friend of Erasmus, later a courtier and Henry VIII’s Catholic chancellor, who persecuted Protestant heretics. This contrasts with his family life, where he is relaxed, generous and gentle and Meg cannot reconcile her knowledge of him as a father with his cruel and fanatical persecution of the heretics.
It combines a love story, art history and historical fiction providing an insight into the Tudor period at a time of great social and religious change.