Vanora Bennett

(Jump down to read a review of Portrait of Unknown Woman)

"Figures in Silk"

(Reviewed by Jana Perskie MAR 23, 2009)

"Is it not clear that silk adorns everything? Is it not silk that adorns the coaches, the carriages, the litters, the maritime gondolas, the horses of the princes, with trappings, with outfits, with tassels, with fringes, with cords, with cushions, with cloths, and a thousand other beautiful things? Does not silk adorn the banners, the standards, the insignia, the halberds trimmed with brocaded velvet and fringes, the sheathed pikes, the bandoliers, the trumpets, the uniforms of soldiers at war? Does not silk adorn the umbrellas, the canopies, the chasubles, the copes, the pictures, the palliums, the sandals, the cassocks, the dalmatics, the gloves, the maniples, the stoles, the burses, the veils for chalices, the lining of tabernacles, the cushions, the pulpits, and all other things of the Church?"

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

Vanora Bennett's fascinating historical novel, Figures in Silk, opens in mid-fifteenth century England. After a long dynastic civil war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, peace finally appears to be at hand and Edward Plantagenet of York is now King of England. His right-hand man is his youngest brother, Richard of Gloucester. The handsome, charismatic Edward is finally restoring order to a land ravaged by years of continuous warfare. And, as life begins to improve, business once again thrives, especially amongst the merchants of London.

One such merchant, John Lambert, a silk trader, has two daughters - the stunningly beautiful Jane, and the lovely but plainer Isabel, who possesses the brains in the family. Lambert arranges marriages for both young women. Isabel is to marry the gawky, boorish Thomas Claver to cement relationships between Lambert and the wealthy widow Alice Claver, a respected silkwoman known as a "force of nature" in the business. Jane, with her white blonde hair and emerald eyes, is to wed shy Will Shore.

About one hundred years earlier, the "Black Death" killed 30-40% of England's population, almost 2 million men, women and children. With the population so low, there were not enough people to work the land. As a result, many girls, who would never find husbands, were encouraged to train in the guilds. Thus, women such as Alice Claver had an opportunity to apprentice at a trade and rise in the business world. She became a silkwoman, "a spinster of silk," and a success - independent in her own right - in the 15th century!!.

Isabel, for all her intelligence, is miserable because she is a romantic at heart and had imagined a marriage based on love, not on business. Jane is more practical and doesn't mind her arranged marriage. Isabel's and Jane's fortunes are to change, with their new civil status, much more than they ever dreamed.

King Edward, as a boon to John Lambert, attends the new brides' joint wedding feast. Lambert, a strong supporter of the Yorkist cause, in bad times and good, had loaned Edward money when he was impoverished and in exile. To Edward, these deeds merit his attendance. The king also is not adverse to demonstrating to Londoners how he values loyalty. It is here that Edward IV sees Jane Lambert Shore for the first time. She will soon become his "merry mistress" for the rest of his life. Isabel also has a chance meeting of her own, with a dark and brooding stranger. Unbeknownst to her, he is Richard, Duke of Gloucester. She is asked to call him "Dickon," and is not to learn his true identity until years later. They too begin an affair which will last his lifetime.

Widowed shortly after her marriage, Isabel asks her mother-in-law to allow her to apprentice in the silk trade rather than return to her father's house and be married-off again. Isabel begins at the bottom of the ladder, ruining her once lovely white hands. She works with the poorest girls whose job it is to throw and twist silk and turn seams from dawn to dusk. She learns to love the glorious, exotic fabric from Italy, Persia, Spain, and places far beyond.

While Jane spends her life at court with the king, Isabel becomes adept at her job, and within a few years immerses herself, with Alice Claver and various associates, in the ruthless battle for the world's silk trade. Originally, through Jane's court connections, later through her own, Isabel has access to the king and is able to petition him on matters of business. She will eventually attempt to subvert the Venetian silk monopoly. She wants to establish silk making as an English trade. The English merchants bitterly resent the Italians, who control the trade secrets of weaving silk and are able to charge what they like. This anti-Italian bitterness is fueled by the Lombards, who reside in London and act as both silk cloth salesmen and bankers to London mercers. One Italian who is able to pass on the secrets of the trade is Geoffredo D'Amico, a man who figures largely in the novel's plot.

As an historical novel about Edward IV's court with it's political intrigues, sexual lasciviousness, etc., I would judge this a mediocre book. This same history, of Edward, his Queen Elizabeth Woodville, has been written about as fiction over and over again, and better. In the author's favor, however, Edward's story only serves as a backdrop for more interesting plots and subplots. Vanora Bennett's take on Richard III is a bit more original. However, what makes Figures in Silk so interesting is the author's account of the silk trade in all its wonderful detail. Her descriptions of the weaving of silk, fabric design, the making of braids, ribbons, girdles, and trimmings, are absolutely absorbing - really fascinating - as is her take on the business side of politics between the Lombards and the Londoner's. Figures in Silk along with Ms. Bennett's other work of historical fiction, Portrait of an Unknown Woman are recommended reading, especially for historical fiction fans.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 14 reviews
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"Portrait of an Unknown Woman"

(Reviewed by Jana Perskie FEB 23, 2009)

"In this family, Master Hans, she said, with a strange grin, "the hardest thing is just working out how many secrets might be waiting to come to the surface."

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

Vanora Bennett's Portrait of an Unknown Woman is a fascinating, well researched historical novel about two 16th century men, Sir Thomas More and artist Hans Holbein. Central to the storyline is a young woman who meant much to both of them. Of course, the history of the tumultuous times in which these people lived is larger than all the characters put together and makes for a dramatic story in itself.

Sir Thomas was a brilliant English humanist, author and classical scholar. His circle of friends included kindred spirit, Erasmus, a Dutch theologian and fellow Renaissance humanist. More was also a great friend and advisor to King Henry VIII and served as the King's Lord Chancellor from 1529-1532. A staunch Catholic, he believed that Lutheranism, the teachings of Martin Luther, who launched the Protestant Reformation, threatened the Church and society. In his mind, those who followed Luther's teachings were heretics. As Chancellor, he had many people tortured and burned at the stake for heresy. So, although More was a most admirable and exceptional man, and a pacifist when it came to war, he was a fanatic in his beliefs. The character depicted in the film "A Man For All Seasons" does not portray his dark side. Initially, King Henry agreed with More on matters of religion and suppressed the religious reformation. This unanimity of opinion was to change drastically within a few years - which was extremely unfortunate for Sir Thomas.

Hans Holbein the Younger was a German painter and printmaker. He arrived in England in 1526 looking for work and, perhaps, a patron. He had painted a portrait of Erasmus who recommended the artist to his friend Thomas More. Sir Thomas commissioned Holbein to paint a family portrait. During the period in which the artist originally stayed with the scholarly family, he became a good friend to them all. He was especially drawn to Meg Gibbs, Sir Thomas More's twenty-three year old adopted daughter.

Meg was a relative loner in the large family. She was extremely intelligent and thoughtful, with a strong character. She had been schooled in the classics and was quite knowledgeable about herbs and healing. In fact, the healing arts were her passion. From early childhood, Meg had loved her tutor, John Clements, a much older man, nearer to her foster father's age than her own. When she was his student, he was very kind to her and treated her as if she were special. Clements' attention made a strong impression on the orphaned girl, who felt like an outsider. Now, years later, he returned to London from his travels through Europe, where he studied medicine. Almost immediately he visited the Mores at their home in Chelsea. It became apparent that Meg and John were strongly attracted to each other. Their attraction turned to love. He asked for her hand in marriage and was told, by More, to wait until he became a Fellow in the Medical Guild.

Meanwhile, back at the court, King Henry's eyes, lust and love wandered from his wife, the aging Catholic Queen Catherine of Aragon, to the much younger, striking and vivacious Anne Boleyn. After many years of marriage, the queen had been unable to produce a male heir. The royal couple's only child was a female, Princess Mary. Catherine had been married briefly, as a girl, to Henry's sickly older brother, Arthur. She was left a widow and a proclaimed virgin after six months. A few years after Arthur's premature death at age 16, the Pope issued a dispensation allowing Henry and Catherine to marry. Now, desperately wanting a son, Henry longed for Anne, who refused her king physical relief from these longings until they could marry. Henry then instituted proceedings to resolve the issue of the validity of his marriage to Catherine. He swore that she had consummated her marriage with his brother, citing Leviticus, "If a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing...they shall be childless." It's a long story, but ultimately, Henry broke with Rome, and became head of the Church of England, thus putting himself in direct opposition with all that Thomas More believed.

Ms. Bennett interweaves history with her intricate plot, which is filled with intrigue, secrets, suspense, tragedy, romance and the religious and political upheavals in Europe. Although her account of history is fairly accurate, she plays the "what if" game very well, making for many surprises and much mystery.

I was very interested in Holbein's methods of painting and creating art, especially portraiture. The artist had a passion for telling the truth, and when he could not do so openly, because of the dangerous times, he used symbolism and metaphor in his compositions. Five years after he painted the first portrait of the Mores, he returned to paint another, almost identical...but not quite. This second painting holds the key to much of the novel's mysteries.

I found the pace of the narrative to be very uneven. It is quite slow at times, and if I had not been so interested in the historical period, I might not have finished the book. The writing and story pick up pace considerably after the first few chapters, and then I found it hard to put the novel down. However, about halfway through, it slows down again until the final chapters. I do recommend reading Portrait of an Unknown Woman because it really is fascinating on so many levels. Maybe you could just scan through the slow parts.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 24 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Portrait of an Unknown Woman at author's website

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About the Author:

Vanora BennettVanora Bennett became a journalist almost by accident. She learned Russian and was hired by Reuters and was catapulted into the adrenaline-charged realm of conflict reporting. She reported in Cambodian a decade Khmer Rouge regime ended, and covered Cambodian peace talks in places as far apart as Indonesia and Paris. That led to a conflict reporting job in Africa, commuting between Angola and Mozambique and writing about death, destruction, diamonds and disease, and later to a posting in a country that stopped being the Soviet Union three months after she arrived. She spent much of the early 1990s in smoky taxis in the Caucasus mountains, covering a series of small post-Soviet conflicts that built up to the war in Chechnya.

She now leads a more sedate life and lives in North London with her husband and two small sons. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014