REVIEW: The Painter’s Daughters by Emily Howes

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A story of love, madness, sisterly devotion, and control, about the two beloved daughters of renowned 1700s English painter Thomas Gainsborough, who struggle to live up to the perfect image the world so admired in their portraits.

Peggy and Molly Gainsborough—the daughters of one of England’s most famous portrait artists of the 1700s and the frequent subject of his work—are best friends. They spy on their father as he paints, rankle their mother as she manages the household, and run barefoot through the muddy fields that surround their home. But there is another reason they are inseparable: from a young age, Molly periodically experiences bouts of mental confusion, even forgetting who she is, and Peggy instinctively knows she must help cover up her sister’s condition.

When the family moves to Bath, it’s not so easy to hide Molly’s slip-ups. There, the sisters are thrown into the whirlwind of polite society, where the codes of behavior are crystal clear. Molly dreams of a normal life but slides deeper and more publicly into her delusions. By now, Peggy knows the shadow of an asylum looms for women like Molly, and she goes to greater lengths to protect her sister’s secret.

But when Peggy unexpectedly falls in love with her father’s friend, the charming composer Johann Fischer, the sisters’ precarious situation is thrown catastrophically off course. Her burgeoning love for Johann sparks the bitterest of betrayals, forcing Peggy to question all she has done for Molly, and whether any one person can truly change the fate of another.

A tense and tender examination of the blurred lines between protection and control, The Painter’s Daughters is a searing portrait of the real girls behind the canvas. Emily Howes’s debut is a stunning exploration of devotion, control, and individuality; it is a love song to sisterhood, to the many hues of life, and to being looked at but never really seen.

CW/TW – depictions of mental illness, parental (not the Gainsboroughs) physical abuse, miscarriage 

Dear Ms. Howes, 

I know a bit about Thomas Gainsborough, as I love his portraits, but when I saw the blurb for this book I realized I know zip about his daughters even though I’ve seen Gainsborough’s portraits of them. Overall, I found this novelization of their lives to be well written and interesting though a bit uneven at times. 

It is told from the first person present view of Margaret (the younger daughter) who is also known as Peggy, Peg, and called Captain by her father and intercut with the third person present story of their grandmother for Reasons which become clear as the story progresses. We follow Peggy and her older sister Mary – aka Molly – (and the Gainsboroughs had two daughters they named Mary, the first of whom died as a young child).from a young age when they lived in Ipswich, to Bath, then ultimately to London and (just a bit) of their later life in seclusion.

Peggy gives a rundown of the household which is run by their harried mother and of how her father’s profession influences their lives. There are paintings hung everywhere, including ones of the sisters, showing Gaingborough’s talent to entice prospective clients. Their father’s work precludes him spending as much time with them as everyone would like but when he takes his kit out to the countryside to paint the landscapes that he loves, sometimes the sisters will tag along with him. As portrayed, Gainsborough is a loving father though perhaps not the best businessman as mother Margaret (whose mother’s name was also Margaret) does all the household accounts. 

Persuaded to move to fashionable Bath to increase his prospects, Peggy gives us a child’s view of a carefree life in the country which morphs into life in busy, noisy, crowded, and slightly filthy Bath. Life is good but Molly’s tendency to vanish into herself as well as wander and do other frightening things is a hint of what is to come.

I found the first part to be the most interesting. Peggy is a child of ~ eight and the way she describes her life feels that age. Later during the early years in Bath – while she’s still supposed to be fairly young – her voice feels older than it should to me. I would have preferred life in the country too, wandering fields, picking blackberries, and playing in a stream rather than Bath, no matter how interesting the people or sights. 

During the second half of the book, I felt more ill at ease but also a little bored. It’s endless rounds of parties for the sisters who are now back from their six years at a school (one of those ubiquitous schools for girls that haunt historical romance books). As their portraits had when they were children, their adult social activities were meant to serve as accessories for their father’s career. But also I knew that the Event that nearly separated the sisters as well as Molly’s final descent into mental illness were around the bend. 

The descriptions of 18th century life are not prettied up. This is particularly evident in the parts with the sisters’ grandmother. Her life was grim but she did find a cleared-eyed way out of it. Thoughts regarding how she did this might differ but she had a goal and she got it. Early in the book, Peggy mentions a series of eight (Hogarth) prints that the family has which (from her description) are illustrating Bedlam. This horrible place is how we begin to see what might happen to Molly if she’s deemed to be “mad” and why Peggy works so hard to cover up her sister’s symptoms. But yes, there is a degree of becoming her sister’s keeper involved as well. I can also understand – as it’s shown – why Molly might have tried to throw over the traces at one point in order to try to live a normal life. 

The sparse details of their lives and the possible backstory of their mother and grandmother are wound into an interesting explanation of the sisters’ lives. I like that the events for which there is no evidence other than the known personalities of the people involved are mentioned in the afterwards note. It’s sad that Peggy’s and Molly’s lives couldn’t remain as happy as they were as children chasing a white butterfly in a garden as their father painted them. B-


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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

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