Another Review at MyShelf.Com

Portrait of an Unknown Woman
A Novel

by Vanora Bennett

      Vanora Bennett has made a fine debut book in Portrait of an Unknown Woman. She sets herself a high bar to follow up and go over with her next book. It is superbly written, and you totally get caught up in the story of the Eighth King Henry of England and the Court and all the subterfuge and thinking of the time. This is the time of the Protestant Reformation and Cromwell and Anne Boleyn and the Plantagenets and the Plague and the Sweating Sickness and the beatings and killings of the Heretics. It is a time of overwhelming learning and exuberance over good things happening within the palaces of Europe while the Church is facing extinction and the ordinary people of Europe are frightened and scared and hiding and starving and dying. It is a time of great wealth and building of Universities and the learning of cures so the sick of the Courts will live and be well forever, learning about the solar system and the benefits of having medicine and remedies that are tested and proven. It is a time of great struggles for people who want to believe in God, but the Church is under such strain to hold its credibility in England because of a King who needs an heir, a boy child to carry on the Crown.

Meg Giggs is an adopted daughter of Sir Thomas More, who is the one of the most influential of the Courtiers of Henry VIII. She is learned and wise beyond her years, as all of the children of Sir Thomas have been educated by Tutors and teachers throughout their lives. Hans Holbein is a noted portrait artist who has proven himself worthy of a seat at the home of More to do several paintings of the family, on two different occasions, five years apart. He also did a few separate portraits of Miss Meg with whom he secretly fell in love the first time he painted the family, before she married John Clement. Meg was brought up to ask questions and learn, and she did those things well, as well as delving into the healing arts of the time and then learning to question some of the practices, such as leaching or "blood letting."

In this novel by Ms. Bennett, Meg Giggs falls in love with and marries John Clement who many over the last five hundred years have secretly considered might be the last remaining Plantagenet - Richard, one of the two sons of Edward IV that were supposedly killed by Richard III after the takeover of the throne. John Clement was featured in a book that was written by Sir Thomas More and a painting done by Hans Holbein about ten years prior to the time period of this story. He and Meg were not allowed to be married until Clement proved himself to his mentor, Sir Thomas, by getting an appointment at the College of Physicians in London and therefore proving that none of the Court would put his right to life in jeopardy by revealing his true parentage and right to the throne. After they marry, she takes to apothecary and doctoring those sick and hurt in London in the section of the town where her home is located and near Chelsea during the Sweating Sickness. She has an intriguing interlude with Holbein during that time because she and Clement have grown apart due to the political climate that the family has been thrown into. This is just before Sir Thomas More is forced to remove himself from the Court of Henry VIII because of his opposition to Anne Boleyn and the marriage to come. Of course, you know what happened to those who opposed Henry, such as Anne, they lost their heads... And the family of Sir Thomas More was in serious jeopardy during the period when Anne Boleyn was making her religious preferences known.

If you love the history of the Courts and especially of England and King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine, this is a very fascinating book to read and is greatly recommended for the authenticity and honesty in the telling of this story, the times and the tolls of the Reformation on all who had a part in the upheaval of the Catholic Church and the showing of the Portrait of an Unknown Woman. It is a long book, but well worth taking the time to sit down and become glued to it, the way I did. I have the Kings Henry I and III and the Plantagenets I, II and III in my family tree so this book had some revelations to me and also proved several things in my genealogical tree. Very interesting things... and it has spurred me to study more about my tree of history with the Royals of England. Parts of the story around Meg’s husband John Clement may be fiction, but it may also be the real truth of the Plantagenet end, or is it the end, for Meg bore a son of John Clement. Oh, the possibilities.

The Book

William Morrow/Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers
April 3, 2007
0061251836 / 978-0061251832
Historical fiction 1527 reign of Henry VIII and the Tudors
More at

The Reviewer

Claudia Turner VanLydegraf
Reviewed 2007
© 2006