Trenton Reads

Our literary adventures …

Review: Portrait of an Unknown Woman


Portrait of an Unknown Woman, Vanora Bennett’s debut novel, is set in England, 1527, in the heat of the Catholic-Protestant struggle. The story is told from the vantage point of Sir Thomas More’s family, specifically his adopted daughter, Meg Gibbs. At first, I thought I was going to have trouble liking her character, but by midway through the book she felt like a friend and by the end, I was sad to say good-bye.

During Meg’s childhood and young adult years, More is a favorite of the English court, as well as a respected intellectualist. Their home is constantly filled with the prominent intellectual and political figures of the day, and clever Meg embraces the urbane, humanist thinking that surrounds her. Meg is sharply intelligent, passionate in her opinions, warm and loving to both her family and friends and the disadvantaged citizens of London.

After her marriage to her childhood tutor and lifelong love, who is now a respected doctor, Meg works as a female healer in the streets of London. She is torn between loyalty to her father who, somewhat uncharacteristically, is fanatically persecuting Protestant “heretics”, and her own more tolerant religious views. Eventually she can remain silent no longer and dares to oppose the torture and killing that her father has sanctioned.

Historical fiction fans will appreciate the glimpse into the infamous reign of King Henry VIII from the perspective of Sir Thomas More, from More’s glory years as Lord Chancellor of England to his downfall as an ardent Catholic when Henry increasingly embraced Protestantism. As a reader, I felt invested in the lives of this cast of characters and held my breath as England became a hotbed of religious fanaticism, wondering how it would affect Meg and her family.

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