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36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Tale of Two Portraits
This is a romantic romp through one of the great mysteries of Tudor times. It is set in the 16th Century, in the family of Sir Thomas More, one-time chancellor to Henry VIII who defied him and was executed. The bookends of the story are two portraits of the More family done by Hans Holbein, the German artist who became Henry's court painter. The first portait is a...
Published on 18 Nov 2006 by Alan S. Philps

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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars loosely plotted with lots of untied ends...
sorry to be a negative voice here: I always want to find good historical novelists and so was ready to love this book but was disappointed.

The plot just tries to do too much and fails to tie the whole thing together: the characters are a mystery in that they say and do things that are at odds which what we've been told they feel; and the historical sense seems...
Published on 25 Mar 2008 by Roman Clodia


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36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Tale of Two Portraits, 18 Nov 2006
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This is a romantic romp through one of the great mysteries of Tudor times. It is set in the 16th Century, in the family of Sir Thomas More, one-time chancellor to Henry VIII who defied him and was executed. The bookends of the story are two portraits of the More family done by Hans Holbein, the German artist who became Henry's court painter. The first portait is a charming sketch of the family dating from 1528, but by 1532 when the work is redone, the family members have moved around, a mysterious man has entered the picture, and family solidarity is clearly threadbare. Meg Giggs, Sir Thomas's erudite ward, appears as a central character in the first sketch, but later is elbowed aside by her adoptive sister, who seems to be casting a lascivious glance at Meg's husband. Many experts have wondered what is going on here. Bennett's novel fills in the story between the first and second pictures, focusing on Meg and the two men in her life, her weak husband John Clement and Holbein, the clumsy genius. Bennett acknowledges a debt to an art historian who has a startling theory about the true identity of Meg's husband.

It's surprising at first that the characters speak in 21st century English, and there are no thee's and thou's. But the purpose is to show that in affairs of the heart there is scant difference between 16th century women, in their fierce pentagonal bonnets, and ourselves. Read this for a fascinating peek into life in a great Tudor family.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars loosely plotted with lots of untied ends..., 25 Mar 2008
By 
Roman Clodia (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Paperback)
sorry to be a negative voice here: I always want to find good historical novelists and so was ready to love this book but was disappointed.

The plot just tries to do too much and fails to tie the whole thing together: the characters are a mystery in that they say and do things that are at odds which what we've been told they feel; and the historical sense seems all wrong.

I was interested in reading a book set in the early Tudor period that doesn't focus on either Henry or Anne Boleyn and Thomas More is an interesting subject. However the man is made a mystery (in an unsatisfying way) in his combination of erudite humanism and his grisly, sinister torturing of both 'heretics' and himself (the hair shirt) for his religious beliefs. The revelation at the end of his early love is equally out of keeping with everything we have learnt about him.

Similarly Meg Griggs, the heroine, moves off in all kinds of odd directions that never come together: she's part educated woman, part superstitious herbalist rejecting 'scientific' medicine; part Latinist, with a feeling for protestantism; she discovers a sinister side to the man she knows as father and yet manages to forget it. And her relationships with the two men which should have been the heart of the story are shallow and over-romanticised.

Also the narrative is structured in an odd way: it's mainly a first-person narrative by Meg, but then there are interspersed narratives by Holbein and John Clement that just appear and then disappear again...

All together there could have been a good book at the heart of this but it unfortuantely reads like a first draft that needs more work. The plot needs pruning, the narrative needs tightening up and the characters clarifying. At the moment there's a sudden flurry of information in the last chapter which completely changes the story and the characters (or ought to) and yet it's all just swept away for an obligatory happy ending.

For a brilliant though very different read, try Peter Ackroyd's biography of Thomas More.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars gripping, 13 Jan 2007
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D. Cameron (England) - See all my reviews
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I was given this book for Christmas; i do not usually read historical fiction. However I really enjoyed it. I did find the writing rather laboured in the first few chapters, notably when the narrator was speaking; however, since she starts the book as a young and naive girl, I wondered if this was a narrative device to reflect this,as I didn't notice it as the book progressed and she became more mature and in control of her life. The plot, set amidst Sir Thomas More's house and milieu was really interesting and pacy and the period detail was fascinating.

I will certainly be reading more historical novels, having found this one so rewarding.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A missed opportunity!, 21 April 2011
This review is from: Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Paperback)
One of the most tiring books I read in recent years. It is merely the concept that is interesting; the story of Meg-a young girl in Thomas More's household-unfolding in the 16th century. Meg, the orphan ward of Thomas More, falls in love with two men, one of whom is the painter Holbein. The other is a mystery man who turns out to be a most unlikely historical character. Brilliant plot you might think! So did I, but when I started reading, I struggled to turn the pages...

Apart from the interesting storyline- which is badly told- there is nothing to recommend this book for.

Concept apart, all else fails, including the author's language and grammar; the author repeatedly starts many of her sentences with 'And...' in the first half of the book. She narrates parts in the first person and other parts in the third, which is inconsistent and confusing. The storyline is not generally interweaved with the historical events and customs of the period.

For those of you who enjoy historical fiction, I highly recommend Elizabeth Chadwick, an excellent author who 'brings history alive' like no other. Secondly, I recommend our well known Philippa Gregory, who turned from historical biographer to historical novelist, to the delight of many of her readers.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant Novel: Intriguing, Moving, and Rich in History., 6 Oct 2006
By 
Kari S. Fry "Kari" (London) - See all my reviews
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For anyone who enjoys historical fiction, romance, or politics, this book is for you! It's over 500 pages but I read it in two days, I couldn't put it down!!
This novel takes a theory about Holbein's painting and gives an entire amazing back story. The author uses such descriptive detail that it's easy to lose yourself in the story. All the while there is so much else going on between other characters, with Sir Thomas Moore and the changes in religion. I prefer historical fiction because I can learn about history in a more interesting way than reading a non fiction novel, and as 16th century England wasn't something I knew a lot about, I learned loads from this novel. There is a great deal of history and multiple characters integrated into the story, but its woven so well that it reads easily and keeps you interested! For the girl in me, who loves romances and drama, the love story between Meg and John is both heartwarming and heart-wrenching.
Portrait of an Unknown Woman is an amazing story of the creation of Hans Holbein's Ambassadors and More family paintings, but more importantly about the people who were in them and the changing world around them. I was really impressed with this read, as it's apparently her first work of fiction, and have recommended it to all my mates! Five stars!

!
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4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars, 12 July 2014
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic novel, 10 Jun 2014
This review is from: Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Paperback)
. I loved the historical backgrouind and the plots around the characters. I found the book gripping and as is usual with Venora Bennett's books I am always sad when I finish reading.
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5.0 out of 5 stars I Loved this book, 5 April 2013
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Whether or not you believe that John Clement was Richard, Duke of York or not, this is a fascinating book. It gives a real insight into the religious turbulence of the early 16th century, and explains the hidden imagery in Holbein's paintings.It's also a rollicking good story.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Gooey and dull, 8 Jan 2013
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Mrs. F. M. Dunn "Fi D." (Kent, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Paperback)
Dull, gooey, too chick-lit for my taste, I'm afraid. It moves along well but I'm not keen on this type of novel.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Where was the editor?, 3 Jan 2012
By 
Ann Smyth (Cambridgeshire, UK) - See all my reviews
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This started off promisingly enough, but I rapidly grew frustrated with it. The grammar and punctuation is poor and it's stuff that the editor should have picked up, which makes it doubly frustrating. There were many sentences that I had to read several times to understand as the author has a tendency to use several clauses and leave the subject of the sentence a long way behind.

In the first part, I couldn't decide which point of view the author was narrating from. She uses both Meg Giggs and Hans Holbein as point of view characters, which is fine, but in some of the Meg chapters she seemed to head-hop to Clement. Just when I'd accepted an omniscient POV (even though I didn't like it much) she swapped in the second half to Meg/Hans again but threw in a few passages in first person. Just choose your viewpoint and stick with it, please!

There was a scene early on which didn't work for me in which the characters raise the fate of the Princes in the Tower. I couldn't see why that scene was even there as it was clumsily worked in. It turned out to be foreshadowing, but it would have been nice if that could have been done with more delicacy and finesse.

The other thing that didn't convince me was the development of the Thomas More character. We are told repeatedly that things are getting worse for the More family: that they are tense and the family becomes hated. Telling me that over and over doesn't work, I'm afraid. You have to show me the situation worsening and the author simply didn't.

The other thing that really annoyed me was John Clement being described as having "electric blue" eyes. Really? In 1527? I know the language used in the book for dialogue and so on was modern, but obvious anachronisms just jar me out of the story.

On the plus side, this made me go and Google the historical basis behind it and I am intrigued by the central premise. I shall also probably read some nonfiction about Hans Holbein, who was the most interesting figure in the book by some considerable margin.

Jack Leslau's theory about John Clement is fascinating and I'd have loved this book to be better. Ultimately though, I just found it frustrating, so an average three stars from me.
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