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.