Portrait of an Unknown Woman, by Vanora Bennett

Heads - and eyes - will roll
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The Independent Culture

Historical novels once lurked in despised corners labelled genre fiction. Now, they take centre-stage, nudging literary fiction back to the wings. Vanora Bennett's romping debut offers a portrait of the artist, Hans Holbein, as passionate genius, colouring in as backdrop the tumultuous religious battles accompanying the English Renaissance and Reformation.

Painting with a broad brush, she follows the fortunes of adventurer-painter Holbein and heretic-chaser Thomas More. Holbein arrives at More's Chelsea house to make preliminary sketches for a group portrait of his patron's extended family. Admiring the adult children's wit, learning and beauty, he becomes first intrigued by More's adopted daughter, Meg Giggs, then falls passionately in love with her. Meg, however, has fallen in love with a childhood tutor, John Clements, and marries him.

Trouble starts when family secrets start to surface like splinters from thumbs. History happens awfully fast. First the princes in the Tower are dead, then they are not. First John Clements is probably the secret heir to the English throne, then not. More is a self-flagellating sadist, ordering Protestants burnt, then a dear old patriarch. First Meg thinks Holbein a bit of a brute, then she has ecstatic sex with him, and then decides that she prefers her husband.

Much fun can be had arranging adjectives and adverbs in groups of three. I admire the flourish with which the narrator emphasises emotion: "he remembered her beautiful eyes raised slowly, dramatically, tragically towards him". It's a tricky business, working out whether people in the past sounded like we do. Mostly, Bennett thinks they do: "she was screaming blue murder... I'll definitely have a chat with her when she wakes up". At other moments, she goes for comforting cliché. Girls in love are glowing and radiant. Starlight is reflected in lovers' eyes.

Bennett had a good idea for a historical novel: try to imagine what it was like to love a father you suspected of enjoying the torture of heretics. Try to imagine daily life in Anne Boleyn's London. Unfortunately, as the author nears her conclusion, her writing becomes increasingly sentimental. Proper, ruthless editing, which is a sign of respect, would have saved her from some of the novel's faults.

Michèle Roberts's latest novel, 'Reader, I Married Him', is published by Virago

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