Published 24th Feb 2024
Susan Midalia's Review
Emily Howes was inspired by a famous painting by renowned painter William Gainsborough to write her fine debut novel. One of several portraits of his daughters, The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly (now housed in London’s National Gallery) reveals something unsettling, a shadow of future suffering, beneath the radiant surface of childhood innocence and sisterly affection. Howes' novel is a meticulously researched and exquisitely written work of historical fiction, set in the eighteenth century, that charts the lives of the two sisters, Margaret and Mary, from a relatively carefree childhood in Ipswich to the constraints and sorrows of their adult experiences in Bath and London.
Counterpointing this increasingly disturbing, heartbreaking narrative is the story of lowly Meg, impregnated by Royalty and doggedly determined to stand up for her rights. This wonderfully immersive novel, with its detailed painterly eye for interior and exterior locations, as well as its keen observations of the social mores of the time, asks provocative questions about creativity, madness, female sexuality and social class. Above all, it asks us to reflect on the nature of love in all its complicated and beautiful variety. The novel will be released at the end of February; I urge you to reserve a copy.
'Beautifully written . . . I raced through it' HILARY MANTEL
1759, Ipswich. Sisters Peggy and Molly Gainsborough are the best of friends and do everything together. They spy on their father as he paints, they rankle their mother as she manages the books, they tear barefoot through the muddy fields that surround their home. But there is another reason they are inseparable: from a young age, Molly has had a tendency to forget who she is, to fall into mental confusion, and Peggy knows instinctively that no one must find out.
When the family move to Bath, the sisters are thrown into the whirl of polite society, where the merits of marriage and codes of behaviour are crystal clear, and secrets much harder to keep. As Peggy goes to greater lengths to protect her sister from the threat of an asylum, she finds herself falling in love, and their precarious situation is soon thrown catastrophically off course. The discovery of a betrayal forces Peggy to question all she has done for Molly - and whether any one person can truly change the fate of another.
'A wonderfully powerful and haunting novel with a hugely gripping plot. I absolutely loved it' DEBORAH MOGGACH