Friday, 13 October 2006

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

Portrait of an Unknown Woman
Vanora Bennett
HarperCollins €??

Lucille Redmond

THOMAS MORE was a genius and a canonised saint, but also a bit of a loolah, with his own private Guantanamo in his garden where he tortured heretics (Protestants).

Rumour – and if you’re looking for gossips look no further than the court of Henry VIII – had it that he liked to have his favourite daughter scourge him into repentance for his sins.

He was also chancellor (minister for finance) for Henry VIII, a poet, one of the world’s first sci-fi writers (he wrote Utopia, a vision of a perfect society), and generally a Renaissance man.

One of the most unusual things More did was educating his daughters, a foible regarded as sheer madness at the time.

And in this bestseller, being gobbled up eagerly and passed between book clubs, Vanora Bennett takes a real person, More’s adopted daughter Meg Giggs, and uses her as the basis for the story of the Mores.

This is a great combination of a bodice-ripper and true history, taking in everything from the humanist thought of the Reformation to the fate of the little Princes in the Tower, murdered (maybe) by Henry VIII’s uncle.

Meg is a woman with a not unusual fate – she’s married to a man who’s a lot less intelligent than herself, but plenty ready to steal her ideas.

On the bodice-ripper angle, we have, as usual, a handsome devil, untrustworthy and gorgeous, while in the wings waits a sound, decent sort longing to pledge his love.

On the serious-history angle, we are reading a story we know, but seen through new symbols as tricky and fun as Holbein’s, making this one of the best books we’ll read this year.

Our knowledge of the More family comes partly from the sketches for a lost group portrait by tricksy Tudor court painter Hans Holbein – apart from his gift for making character apparent (that straddling portrait of Henry VIII), he famously hid a distorted skull in his composition The Ambassadors.

His tricks in the More picture included putting the family’s fool, Henry Pattison, in the centre, staring out and looking just like a dwarfish version of Henry VIII.

Bennett weaves all the tricks into a ripping yarn that has you saying to yourself: “I must put out the light and go to sleep… just a few more pages…”

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