Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Written by Vanora Bennett
Review by Ilysa Magnus

In this, journalist Vanora Bennett’s first novel, Meg Giggs, adopted daughter of Sir Thomas More, springs brilliantly to life. Surrounded by a close-knit, complex family with perhaps the most extraordinary man of his age at its helm, Meg finds love with More’s protégé, John Clement. A healer in her own right, Meg is impulsive, clever and deeply intuitive. As she later learns, John, earlier her tutor and later a physician, has been groomed by More. Clement’s story forms a tantalizing part of the plot, and the twists and turns of his life lend suspense and intrigue to what is—even without that convention—a page-turner.

               Into the lives of the More family comes painter Hans Holbein. Where Pater More is an intellectual firestorm with a mind unlikely to be matched by his contemporaries, Holbein increasingly becomes, during the course of the novel, a man of such intense artistic creativity that his talent appears to know few bounds. Spurred on by the likes of Erasmus and Kratzer—and his love for Meg—Holbein returns to repaint the More family, seemingly capturing every nuance of their convoluted interpersonal relationships. Indeed, the portrait itself becomes a novel.

               This is as rich, satisfying and multi-layered a work as I have ever read. Bennett’s attention to historical fact, lovingly embellished with details of daily life and beautifully drawn characterizations of such historic personages as Erasmus, Holbein and More, make this novel a living, breathing organism. An author’s note puts the subject matter into clearer focus, but it certainly isn’t necessary. There is nothing phony, strained or fabricated in this book. Even Meg’s visceral reaction to the heretic torturing and burning spearheaded by her father makes the reader say, “Yes…that’s right. That’s exactly what I would do.”

               Meg Giggs is an unknown woman no longer. An absolute must read.