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Portrait of an Unknown Woman: A Novel Paperback – April 1, 2008

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; Reprint edition (April 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061252565
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061252563
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #290,645 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Caught in the turbulence of the Protestant Reformation during the reign of King Henry VIII, Meg Griggs navigates her path to adulthood as the adopted daughter of Sir Thomas More. Meg is a talented and intelligent protagonist who resists convention to find maturity and resolution of life's trials. Enamored since childhood by John Clement, More's protege, Meg finds marriage unfulfilling and is pulled into the turmoil of Catholic-Protestant strife as a member of More's prominent Catholic family. Hans Holbein the Younger, a German artist, immigrates to England to stay with the More family and paints a family portrait--and yet another portrait five years later. The secrets and symbolism included in these portraits tell the tale of secret identities, alliances, infidelity, and many other elements of intrigue. This debut novel is a must-have for those readers who like literary fiction with a large dose of historical authenticity. Laurie Sundborg
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

Historical detail was complete and accurate.
D. L. Lederman
I recommend this novel highly to those who enjoy well written historical fiction but especially those who enjoy fiction set in Tudor England.
Jennifer Cameron-Smith
I really wanted to like it but in the end, was sorry I wasted so much time on it.
Lady Stardancer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 1000 REVIEWER on March 22, 2008
Format: Hardcover
In 1527, Hans Holbein makes his first trip to London to paint a portrait of the family of Sir Thomas More. This novel is about the More family, specifically Meg Giggs one of Sir Thomas's foster children, and the two men attracted to her. One is Hans Holbein himself, the other is the mysterious John Clement. Told through the eyes of Meg Giggs, we learn of some of the intrigue in the court as Henry VIII seeks to marry Anne Boleyn and of the mystery surrounding John Clement who ultimately becomes Meg's husband.

I picked up this novel because I am fascinated by the life and times of Sir Thomas More (author of `Utopia' and Chancellor to Henry VIII, in 16th century England). Sir Thomas was a patron to many learned philosophers, astronomers, scholars and painters and his household was both lively and learned.

This is an accomplished first novel: it combines elements of history with fiction in a way that may have readers wondering where the boundaries are. Ms Bennett has included an authorial note and a bibliography which will be of value to those readers seeking more information about the people and events of this period.

I recommend this novel highly to those who enjoy well written historical fiction but especially those who enjoy fiction set in Tudor England.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By A. Geldner on March 5, 2009
Format: Paperback
Seems to me that most of these "reviews" are more like lengthy descriptions of the book! People tend to read reviews before they purchase so I will do my best to simply "review."
I am well-read on the Tudor period and just can't get enough historical fiction. While waiting for another Amazon shipment to come in, I picked up Portrait of an Unknown Woman.

Bennett did a great job of depicting the period, vividly describing moods, atmospheres etc. She did an excellent job with Clement and I felt as though I "knew" him. The dynamics of the father/daughter relationship were also decent. However, there were a few things that bothered me. Although Meg was the perfect person to pick as a narrator, Bennett really did not let us see inside her as much as we should have. I felt very unattached to her and even when things were hitting the fan with John, I found myself siding with him.

The turning points/climax were not built-up properly in any aspect. Espically the lust between Meg and Master Hans. The vision I had of him in my head was creepy and did not believe it one bit. Went from virtually nothing to him not being able to live without her????? Come on now...take us there! Build us up! Make us feel it!
There are MANY places where more elaboration was needed and MANY places where it just seemed to jump from emotion to emotion without any lingering. As a reader I was left thinking "UM, what is she feeling right now?" and "Why was this MAJOR event just glazed over?"
It did, however, paint a detailed picture of Clement and even More. And for that, it was worth the read.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A reader on May 15, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent and absorbing historical novel, beautifully written and full of evocative period detail. Even better, the characters are sensitively and convincingly drawn, especially Sir Thomas More, that almost-legendary figure of English history, who comes across as a much more complicated and ambiguous individual than the two-dimensional hero usually presented to readers. Through the eyes of the central character Meg Giggs, one of More's wards, or foster children, we also see him as a religious fanatic, a man capable of personally inflicting torture on Protestant "heretics," and of ordering them burned at the stake.

The novel ends shortly before More is betrayed and then beheaded at the orders of King Henry VIII, for refusing to condone the king's divorce and remarriage to Ann Boleyn. Oddly, the author nowhere mentions this event, not even in an epilogue. Readers who pick up this book will probably know about More's fate, but those who do not will miss the underlying menace that pervades the story: the knowledge of More's eventual martyrdom.

The author's imaginative contributions are curious, especially making the character of John Clements into one of the famous "princes in the tower," imprisoned there by the usurper, King Richard III, and whose fates remain unknown. Her assertion that Meg Giggs was Thomas More's illegitimate daughter is also a bit jarring, although More was a man of strong physical appetites who could have fathered an out-of-wedlock child. The portrait of Hans Holbein is quite good and remains true to at least some of the painter's characteristics, although we know very little about his inner life. The author pointedly ignores the fact (and it is a fact) that Holbein had a mistress in London, with whom he fathered several children, but perhaps that occurred later, in the years after the novel's conclusion.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Luan Gaines HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Sweeping into the history of the explosive reign of Henry VIII and his Great Matter, a divorce from Katherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn, this tale is relayed from the perspective of a highly educated adopted daughter of Sir Thomas More, an avid Catholic and heretic hunter who caught in Henry's drama with the Church and the chaos that ensues. A loyal subject, More reaches the pinnacle of power in Henry's court, only to find himself in conflict with the new ways of the reformists and the king's challenge of church authority. In a great struggle for religious domination that shadows sixteenth century England, the king will not be dissuaded, his desire for a male heir the driving force behind his impetuosity. As More's children watch their father's success, so too do they worry about his personal danger as Henry's demands chafe against More's rigid religious beliefs.

Through the adoring eyes of his adopted daughter, Meg Griggs, More appears a loving, if somewhat distracted father who prides himself on the education of his family, a ready discourse common as they gather together. Into this warm family scene comes portraitist Hans Holbein, fleeing a boring marriage and the messy reformation that has flooded Europe with violence. Holbein's talent is in the intimate detail of the scenes he paints and the use of symbols to add depth and mystery to his work, often telling a story within a story. Inevitably drawn to Meg, Holbein dares not hope for more than friendship, although his obsession grows over the years; meanwhile Meg marries her lifelong love, John Clement. A likely match for the compassionate beauty, Clement, a physician, has much in common with his wife, who has a working knowledge of herbal cures, ministering to those in need.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews

More About the Author

I've been writing historical novels for the past four or five years, and those years have definitely been the best time of my life.

Before that I was a foreign correspondent, working for the Los Angeles Times and Reuters and finally The Times of London in a series of far-flung places from Europe to Asia to Africa to the former Soviet Union. My Russian friends used to joke that as I got more experienced, I was forever being sent to riskier places. It was hugely thought-provoking, and also tremendous fun, in some ways, but with time I began to long to go home.

Writing about the past - yet another foreign country, to paraphrase LP Hartley - turned out to be the way. Who knew, back then, that hanging out in the London Library, reading books over the noise of kiddy computer football games at home, and getting the manuscript in on time, would come to seem every bit as thrilling as those scary taxi rides I used to take in and out of war zones?

Yet I think my books still reflect that earlier period of conflict reporting. My first novel, for instance, is about Thomas More's family of diehard Catholics, at the time Henry VIII was turning England Protestant, and although it has a very fictional love triangle and an art-history conundrum in its foreground, the background of religious conflict, arrests, secret police, and torture and execution for your beliefs all felt very real to me too.

I don't think it makes much difference whether these sorts of big, and often terrifying public events, are situated in the present or in the past - they've always cast the same long shadow over individual lives. The only difference is that more of us in the West lead more cushioned lives today, while, in the past, you were likelier to be caught up in whatever the troubles of the times were. To me, part of the pleasure of writing the books I write now is to make some kind of literary sense, a pattern, out of some of the terrible things I witnessed before - to try and understand how love, loyalty, friendship and quiet decency can, sometimes, help individuals come through, even those caught up in the larger-scale horror of war and conflict.

The four novels I've written so far have gone back in time from Henry VIII (the Middle Ages being a particularly rich source of turbulent history). I've skipped back half a century or so at a time. My fourth novel deals with the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, back in the 14th century, at the time of the English Peasants' Revolt.

But I'm now regrouping ... and think it's time to move forward through time again. Maybe even to somewhere around the time of the Russian Revolution, which would let me bring into my writing some of the other things I learned on my travels!

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Portrait of an Unknown Woman: A Novel
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