#37 ~ Portrait of an Unknown Woman

September 6, 2007 at 2:30 am | Posted in Books, Henry VIII, Historical Fiction, Reading, What's Up | 1 Comment
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Portrait of the Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

I just hate it when a good book ends in a hurry. That, unfortunately, was the case with Portrait of an Unknown Woman. It tells the story of a woman, liberally educated for that time, and her relationships with her adoptive father, her husband, and a man who had been commissioned to paint the family portrait. It seems that her father and her husband are not the men she believed them to be. Throughout much of the course of the novel, Meg Griggs calls her father, Sir Thomas More, and her husband, John Clemente, on numerous rumors and outright lies. After light is shed on two more hurtful lies, Meg is able to most happily forgive and forget all wrongs all within about 30 pages. Pat happy endings don’t sit well with me, especially when the narrator in the past refused to simply let go of something much less meaningful.

Meg became an orphan at an early age. Her mother died as a result of childbirth and her father died in an accident when she was 9. Upon hearing about her situation, Thomas More lined the pockets required to formally adopt her. Although she was provided for physically and educationally equal to More’s biological children, Meg always felt a lack of love and intimacy with her adoptive parents. Meg was, however, certain that her family appreciated her knowledge and skill with what we now would consider holistic medicine. It was only after Hans Holbein arrived to paint the More family portrait and her father finally agreed to let her marry her former tutor, John Clemente, that she came to feel the love for which she had always longed.

After the birth of her son, Meg begins to have doubts about the man her father was becoming. The viciousness of the crown’s attacks on those who had fallen away from the Roman Catholic Church in favor of the new Protestant faith horrified her. She argued with More in an attempt to make him see his cruelty. After he was made King Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, the level of violence escalated to burnings. She could not believe that the man she grew up with could be responsible for this. When he argued his point, Meg found that she could no longer maintain their loving relationship. To make matters worse, the way in which Meg acted upon her knowledge of political affairs led to the discovery of something about her husband that left her feeling cold toward him.

The greatness of this novel surrounds the paintings of Hans Holbein. Especially fascinating to me are the descriptions of the artist painting The Ambassadors and a second family portrait of the Mores. The scene in which the author creates the mood and atmosphere of Holbein’s painting of The Ambassadors is brilliant. It brought the world of art to life for me like never before. I learned so much just by reading the fictional thoughts and ideas that went into each element within the painting. Equally, I was delighted to read the author’s vision of Holbein’s planning and painting of a second More family portrait. In reality, this second family portrait is signed with another name, but it has long been theorized that Holbein painted this as well. She uses this portrait to betray the new family secrets that leads to the novels rushed conclusion.

Everyone likes a happy ending, but I prefer them to be earned. That being said, I do not regret reading this book at all. There is so much more to this art form than I had known. Although I’ve read The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier, I really didn’t leave those books with this same sense. Bennett made me want to learn more about her characters, especially Hans Holbein. To me, this makes it an even greater shame that the ending faltered.

#26 ~ Innocent Traitor

June 5, 2007 at 9:11 pm | Posted in Amazing Narrator, Books, Henry VIII, Historical Fiction, Reading, Religion | 3 Comments
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With this book I have reached the summit!

Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

As I have made my way through the wives of Henry the 8th, this book seemed the next logical choice. This book deals with the rise and fall of Lady Jane Grey, the woman who rules England as Queen for nine short days between the reign of King Edward and Queen Mary. Alison Weir is a historian as is known for her academic accounts of the English monarchy. Innocent Traitor is Weir’s first attempt at using fiction to fully flesh out historic characters and fill in those things that can never be known. This book was a wonderful reading experience, independent of the fact that I read it while at the beach. I would heartily recommend it to anyone who has read The Other Boleyn Girl and/or The Boleyn Inheritance. You will not be disappointed.

Lady Jane Grey was born to Henry the 8th’s niece, Frances. Frances and her husband are selfish people who long only for the good life brought about by being wealthy land owners and members of the royal family. After losing two sons in infancy, Frances is bitter when she bares Jane, a healthy, strapping girl. From the moment Jane’s sex is known, Frances hardens her heart. Jane only becomes valuable to her when Queen Jane gives birth to Prince Edward, her uncle’s sole male heir. Within weeks of her birth, Jane is surrounded by people plotting to use her to their own advantage.

From the very beginning Jane experiences only harshness and displeasure from her mother. Because she is unknowingly being groomed to be a future queen of England, her mother uses a heavy hand with her. Jane, an intelligent and inquisitive child who grows into a sober and scholarly young woman, has a will of her own that her mother cannot break. She is content to spend her life reading in the pursuit of knowledge and righteousness before God. While her parent’s faith changes at the whim of the monarch, Jane grows to become a devout, outspoken, and idealistic Protestant under the tutelage of the doctors chosen specifically by Queen Katherine Parr to teach her. Like many stanch idealists, Jane lacks diplomacy and tact when speaking about faith. Believing that she knows the real truth about God, she refuses to hold her tongue, even in front of Princess Mary, an equally devout and staunch Roman Catholic.

It is the combination of the ultimately ill-fated plotting against the succession of the English monarchy and Jane’s unwavering faith in Protestantism that ultimately bring about her demise.

It was interesting reading this book just after finishing March. Both of the narrators are wholly devout to the cause of their faith. They both loved knowledge and its pursuits about all other pleasures. They both lacked tact and diplomacy, believing that they were proclaiming the will of God to the people of their time. They both were taken about as to how others could not believe the way that they do. Where Captain March was led haphazardly by his shame and fear of damnation, Jane stood defiant and confident in her own salvation without fear of death. Interestingly, it is how they differ that brought about their downfalls.

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