Saturday, June 21, 2008

Codes, Paintings and Conspiracy Theories

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

I guess I've been on a little bit of a Tudor kick lately. The narrator of the novel is Meg, one of Sir Thomas More's wards. The back cover explains that Hans Holbein painted two portraits of the More family, separated by a period of six years or so, and these portraits end up serving as framing devices for the novel's time span. Part of the novel is dedicated to analyzing these portraits, so of course, I had to google to find out more and see how much of it actually seemed accurate. The book only had a sketch of the first portrait in its pages, but unfortunately not the second, though the cover was from a section of the painting as it turns out (that was one of the things that annoyed me about The DaVinci Code - Brown's referencing a bunch of paintings, and I wanted to see them to determine if the conclusions were out there, but supportable, especially for a novel or just complete bull). By googling, I discovered that the first portrait went missing and only the sketch remains.

Since this is a historical novel, the author was of course restrained by reality - Meg ends up marrying a man who is about 25 years older than her, and says she was in love with him since she was around 14 - this bugged me, but since the real Meg actually did marry this man, the author might as well make them a happy couple. More or less. Her husband, John Clement, has a big family secret in his background which really isn't that exciting (or even that hard to guess at, especially with a minor knowledge of English history), and doesn't really have much to do with the rest of the plot of the novel.

More interesting is the background that begins to affect the family. At the beginning of the novel, Sir Thomas More is at the height of his power (the new Chancellor) while by the end he has fallen out of favor due to his unwillingness to see the king as head of the church. Meg has problems reconciling her father, the intellectual and humanist with her father, the almost fanatical Christian who tortures and burns heretics (some of whom Meg sympathizes with).

Overall, it wasn't a bad read. Meg, as a character, is kind of a mix of modern day sensibilities and older values - sometimes, I just wanted to tell her to stop being so quiet and soft spoken, while other times, I thought there is no way a woman in her time would do that. Her husband is basically boring, and their relationship really didn't do it for me, but I liked the parts that explored other aspects of society at the time.

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