If you’re a regular visitor to my blog you’ll know that I’m mad keen on historical fiction. Any era will do, I’m not fussy; as long as it’s sometime pre-twentieth century and there’s a sumptuous dress on the cover I’m probably going to be happy. A few years ago, however, I went through a phase of gravitating towards novels set in the Tudor period, to the extent that I ended up feeling I’d overindulged myself and consequently burned out my interest in that era. “Portrait of an Unknown Woman” is the first time I’ve returned to the Tudors in quite a long while, and to my relief I felt completely refreshed, as if I was discovering my love of the period all over again.
The book that ignited my love affair with historical novels was “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory, and if you enjoyed her books I can pretty much guarantee you’ll love this. Vanora Bennett has quite a similar writing style and way of approaching her subject, wearing her meticulous research lightly but still delving beyond familiar representations of the period to shed new light on characters about whom, if we know a bit of history, we have perhaps already made assumptions. The novel centres on the family of Thomas More, civil servant and later Lord Chancellor at the court of Henry VIII, and Hans Holbein, the ambitious German artist hoping to advance his career by painting the rich and powerful of Tudor England. Much of the story is told my Meg, a young woman taken in by More as a child following the death of her parents and raised as one of his own. It starts as a love story, with Meg looking out across the Thames from the Mores’ Chelsea home, awaiting the arrival of John Clement, her one-time tutor and the man with whom she has fallen completely and utterly in love. And in a sense a love story it remains – but not in the way I expected when the novel began. This isn’t about spending three hundred pages wondering whether the would-be couple are finally going to get together; this is about what happens to our feelings when the first flush of a seemingly perfect romance turns out not to lead anywhere near the places we’d anticipated. Almost everyone in this novel – the lovers included – has secrets, some kept out of pure motives, others concealed out of fear, jealousy or desire for control. As more and more truths are gradually revealed the relationships between the characters become increasingly complex; just as we’ve decided where our sympathies lie, the rug is pulled out from under our feet.
Of course, all these relationships are played out during one of the most turbulent periods in English history: the lead up to the monarchy’s break with the Church of Rome. The brutal religious politics of the day cannot help but exert their influence on the emotional lives of characters whose marriages, friendships and family ties are already under strain from the various grievances, resentments and suspicions that affect us all even in the most stable of times. Sinister events – imprisonments, tortures, executions – that are merely hinted at in the novel’s early chapters become increasingly exposed as the book goes on. At first Meg is unaware of the extent to which her father is involved in Henry’s reign of terror; we learn the truth along with her as she gradually uncovers the accumulating horrors being committed in the name of God. It is Hans Holbein who is perhaps the novel’s one true sage. He may not have the broad education of the precocious More children, but the author presents him as one of the only characters who has their eyes open to the truth from the start. Holbein has seen enough of the Reformation in Europe to realise that religious extremes, whichever way they lean, cause nothing but cruelty and chaos. When he paints the commissioned portrait of Sir Thomas More’s family he resolves not to produce the flattering representation that most patrons would expect, but rather to capture the veracity of each individual: their coldness, weariness or naivety. You could say this is a novel about learning to live with the truth, and coping with life when neither the world nor the people in it are what we hoped they would be.
This is definitely going to join my list of favourite historical novels. Just as the story throws up a succession of surprises for its characters, so the book surprised me somewhat right up until the end; even the conclusion is not as you might imagine. It’s a perfectly balanced blend of romance, history and drama – one I’d recommend without a doubt.