Good historical fiction – politics, religion, romance and paintings!

Theatre time this week. With Daughter to see the RSC’s Anthony and Cleopatra at the Theatre Royal. The Production itself was very good; very well staged, impressive effects, excellent costumes. We did agree, though, that the casting of Cleopatra was at best, described as “brave”, at worse misguided. The dear lady seemed to be without allure, without much appeal, and crucially, insufficient presence to make any one give up an empire. “A bit whiny” said Daughter, as Cleo nagged Anthony into action. Anthony’s attempt at suicide provoked actual laughter from the audience, which wasn’t completely deserved, but it was a little unconvincing. Tonight “The Madness of King George”. Comments to come!

Today’s book is not the best known, but excellent.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

This is not just another Henry VIII wife, mistress, servant book. It is about Meg Giggs, an adopted daughter of Thomas More, Hans Holbein who painted pictures of the More family, and the mysterious John Clement. This not just a book about the rise, decline and death of More, but features the importance to him of his family and friends, and his control of so many situations even when his influence was under attack. It is about the religious dangers to both sides of the Catholic/Protestant debate; the signs and illness associated with the King’s determination to marry Anne Boleyn, the secrecy and danger faced by those under persecution. Holbein’s paintings are explained, including his Ambassadors picture with all its symbolism.

At the centre of the book is the character of Meg, who faces the challenge of being in the More family, being loved by two men, and trying to understand the challenges of politics, religion and medicine in a very realistically drawn London in 1527. She comes over as a real person, drawn into the big issues of the day. Her relationship with John Clement has implications not only for her, but for the politics of a nation.

This is not a dry historical account of a complicated period of history, but it is well researched and solid in its facts. It is a novel of romance, but also family loves and concerns, described in all their complexity.It introduces well known characters, but describes them all in their faults and strengths. I really enjoyed it, despite the fact I have been reading Tudor novels for years, because it brought out so many new elements of the period. I know that I strongly recommended the The Captive Queen a while ago as a really good read, and this book is also very strong, set in a better known period. If you are at all interested in historical fiction, this is an excellent example.