PORTRAIT OF AN UNKNOWN WOMAN

A Protestant painter and a Catholic subject, a king in love, and a young woman picking her way through the battlefield of the heart

IT IS 1527...

The English Renaissance is in full swing under the young King Henry VIII. The German painter Hans Holbein, who has come to London to seek his fortune and escape the religious wars back home, is delighted when he gets a commission to paint the family of Thomas More, one of England’s leading statesman and men of learning, at his country home in Chelsea. The story, seen through the eyes of More’s ward Meg, is framed by the two portraits the Protestant Holbein will paint of the Catholic More family – the first when Thomas More is about to become Lord Chancellor and is at the peak of his powers, and the second, seven years later, after More has resigned his job in protest at the King’s decision to divorce his first wife, the Spanish Catholic Catherine of Aragon, and marry the Protestant Anne Boleyn. With disaster looming for the Mores, Holbein’s genius for truth-telling through his painting brings out all the family secrets in the second of the portraits.

SOME REVIEWS

‘(An) ambitious, involving first novel … Bennett writes gracefully and persuasively, skillfully using historical details to capture the uncertain mood of a turbulent era. Her portrait of the artist Holbein and his work is fascinating, especially her explanation of the ingenious symbolism encoded in his second portrait of the More family. Meg may be the main character, but Holbein is the heart and soul of the story.’ Boston Globe, April 2007

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‘The larger narrative here has to do with the increasingly hysterical religious infighting in London between Catholics and Protestants as Henry decides to marry Anne Boleyn and subdue the obstreperous Catholic segments of his population (with Sir Thomas More caught in the middle, and about to lose both his high position and his life). The smaller, more personal part of the story is about what happens to a woman who marries out of love and then gradually learns that her husband is not only less smart than she is but something of a slippery deceiver. Many women, I’m sorry to say, may be able to relate to this. And then there is a satisfying examination of the career of Hans Holbein, artist-on-the-make, as he tries to deal with his commonplace, long-suffering wife while striving mightily to establish contacts with the great families of Europe in order to build his career. The most contemporary and disheartening aspect of this tale is how so many characters here thrash about killing each other in the name of God — always a popular human pastime. Things haven’t changed very much in that regard, the author implicitly reminds us. But, with luck, and this is the good news, the sensible and discreet among us may live good and decent private lives, both then and now.’  Washington Post, April 2007

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‘This blockbuster is nothing if not distinguished. Told in consistently well-upholstered prose, this is the perfect tale for autumn. Romance, intrigue and art history are confidently blended, and Holbein’s canvases are afforded starring roles.’ Daily Mail (London), 2006

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‘I loved this book, and immediately wanted to rush off and look at Holbein’s paintings.’ First’s Book of the Week, 2006

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‘Bennett creates a vivid mental life for one of history’s nobodies, a girl “as unreadable as a dazzle of sun on water”’ Sunday Times paperbacks reviews, June 2007.

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‘Bennett has a fine grasp of historical detail and a light style’ The Observer paperbacks reviews, June 2007.

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‘In her historical fiction debut, Vanora Bennett brings a crucial slice of English history to life with compelling characterizations and a keen eye for period detail. …In the current climate of increasingly strident ideologies, Bennet’s remarkably balanced and sympathetic portrayal of the novel’s central religious dispute is nothing short of miraculous … Although the enjoyment of this book is greatly enhanced by a general understanding of Plantagenet/Tudor history, it is sure to please anyone with the slightest interest in beautiful writing and realistic characterizations set within a historical framework.’ Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Kathryn J. Atwood, 2007

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‘Don’t miss this fantastic book’. Romance Reviews Today (Jani Brooks), June 2007

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‘As intricate as the unique paintings of Hans Holbein, Bennett’s take on tumultuous sixteenth-century England is flavored by religious persecution, one man’s quest for anonymity and safety, and the unrequited love of an artist for his fascinating subject.’Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Luan Gaines, 2007

*

‘I have not enjoyed a debut novel this much in a long time. Vanora Bennett has written a beautiful historical romance, a very personal story of actual events told from the viewpoint of a woman who was there, and who was profoundly affected by them. A well-researched, totally plausible, engrossing “what if” story of one of England’s most influential families.’ Bookpleasures.com, April 2007

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‘This is several cuts above the usual history-lite – part love story, part thriller, all excellently imagined and written.’ The Times (London)

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‘One of the best books we’ll read this year.’ Evening Herald (Dublin)

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‘The author’s strength lies in her ability to communicate her passion for the period in which humanists, Protestants and Catholics were set on a collision course, and the imaginative sleight of hand in which, by decoding the detail in his painting, Holbein’s work is given new resonance.’ The Sunday Times (London)

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‘Emotional stuff’ Christian Science Monitor (AP Entertainment), April 2007

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‘Meg is an appealing heroine for readers relishing a strong-willed, talented and intelligent protagonist who resists convention to ultimately find maturity and resolution of life’s trials. Bennett masters all the period details, intricate plotting, suspense, and characterization that make this debut novel a must have for those readers who like literary fiction with a large dose of historical authenticity.’Booklist, April 2007

*

‘A journalist whose books include The Taste of Dreams: An Obsession with Russia and Caviar, Bennett proves equally adept at breathing life into a novel of the turbulent period of European history known as the Protestant Reformation. Bennett develops her characters fully by revealing both their romantic and their religious inner conflicts. With this interweaving of historical fact and imaginative characterization, she creates a multidimensional work of fiction. Readers of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring will enjoy this debut novel for its elucidation of Holbein’s symbolism. Highly recommended.’ Library Journal, starred review, March 15 2007

*

‘An engrossing, quietly impassioned historical that blends some big ideas into the love story and ends with a touching burst of emotional insight.’ Kirkus, starred review, February 15 2007

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‘Bennett … luminously shades in an ambiguous period with lavish strokes of humanity, unbridled passion and mystery.’ Publishers Weekly, February 5 2007

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‘Bennett masters all the period details, intricate plotting, suspense, and characterization that make this debut novel a must have for those readers who like literary fiction with a large dose of historical authenticity.’ Booklist, April 1 2007

*

‘A journalist whose books include The Taste of Dreams: An Obsession with Russia and Caviar, Bennett proves equally adept at breathing life into a novel of the turbulent period of European history known as the Protestant Reformation. Bennett develops her characters fully by revealing both their romantic and their religious inner conflicts. With this interweaving of historical fact and imaginative characterization, she creates a multidimensional work of fiction. Readers of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring will enjoy this debut novel for its elucidation of Holbein’s symbolism. Highly recommended.’ Library Journal, starred review, March 15 2007

*

‘Fans of Tracy Chevalier and Philippa Gregory will lap up this meticulously researched historical tale…A brilliant study of passion, politics, religion and art.’ London Evening Standard

*

‘The historical detail is excellent and the story, featuring Sir Thomas More, Hans Holbein and other B-list Tudor celebrities, has enough twists to keep readers on their toes. The tang of daily Tudor life, with strangers lurking in dark alleys and the horros of the plague never far away, is conveyed with skill and feeling.’ Sunday Telegraph (London)

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‘Fans of Girl With A Pearl Earring will greet this with open arms: it’s a similarly intriguing, clever web of art, passion and historical characters…This is atmospheric and alive with philosophy and treachery – exhilarating.’ Easy Living

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‘There is plenty to admire and enjoy in Bennett’s portrayal of a society convulsed by radical change … a writer to watch.’ Times Literary Supplement

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‘A brilliant study of passion, politics, religion and art.’ Eve ‘Rich in period detail, full of human passion, Portrait of an Unknown Woman mingles art, politics and family drama to evoke the period when humanism was taking root in England. A fascinating tale, skilfully told and highly recommended.’ Iain Pears, author of An Instance of the Fingerpost

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‘ What this brilliant first novel succeeds in is bringing to life these historical figures, creating a scenario that reminds us that their toughts and hopes were not so very different from our own.’ Grove ‘Top quality historical fiction, impeccably researched.’ Nottingham Evening Post

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‘An enjoyable read.’ The Guardian (London)

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‘As the novel unfolds, she [Meg Giggs] shrewdly chronicles the changing political and religious climate as it impacts on the More household and her own life. Holbein is brought ebulliently to life and the overall result is solid, uncomplicated historical fiction, puffed out with all the lavish details of costume and cuisine that its fans expect.’ The Observer (London)

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‘Worshipped by two men, one of them the artist Holbein, Meg is a sympathetic heroine.’ MarieClaire’ “This Month’s Hot Reads” column

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‘An atmospheric, passionate novel set against a backdrop of religious and political upheaval.’ Woman and Home

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‘Vanora Bennett’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman has been favourably compared to Girl With A Pearl Earring.’ Sunday Express S Magazine

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