In Henry VIII’s England, a spirited heroine grows from impulsive girl to wiser woman as religious intolerance rages.
British journalist Bennett’s first novel takes a sober approach to a well-trod patch of English history. Her educated heroine, Meg Giggs, is a ward in the home of Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More, giving her a ringside seat overlooking the terrible drama of religious conflict. More is committed to defending the Catholic faith, which is coming under threat from the heretics, i.e., Lutheran Protestants. As Hans Holbein arrives to paint what will be his famous portrait of More and family, Meg comes back into contact with the man she always loved, John Clement, and with whom she shares healing aspirations. (She is an herbalist; he has been studying medicine.) John declares his love and intention to marry Meg, but More blocks the wedding until John is elected to the College of Physicians. Eventual plans for the union are eclipsed by John’s revelation that he is, in fact, Richard Plantagenet, one of the two princes assumed murdered by Richard III. But the wedding finally proceeds, initially happily, and a son is born. Suppression of the heretics, led by More, intensifies, with torture and burnings at the stake, resulting in Meg losing faith in her adopted father. When her husband reveals another important secret, she becomes estranged from him, too. The king, desperate for an heir and seeking a divorce in order to marry Anne Boleyn, begins to side with the Protestants, and More resigns. Holbein returns, now a better artist with an undying admiration for Meg, leading to the exposure of additional secrets and Meg’s final decision to opt for forgiveness and reconciliation.
An engrossing, quietly impassioned historical that blends some big ideas into the love story and ends with a touching burst of emotional insight.