My book review of 'The Painter's Daughters' by Emily Howes

by Emily Howes
The Painter's Daughters
by Emily Howes

The painter in question here is Thomas Gainsborough, a Suffolk artist, so I was immediately curious about this book by a debut novelist who was first spotted in a writing competition by the lead judge, Hilary Mantel.

Peggy and Molly Gainsborough's carefree childhood in Suffolk is disrupted when the family moves to Bath for their father, Thomas, to earn his living painting portraits in fashionable society. 

It's 1759 and the two sisters have always been inseparable, whether running through the muddy fields or spying on their father as he paints.

They are the best of friends but also Peggy is very protective of her younger sister. Molly has had a tendency to forget who she is, to become confused, and Peggy knows instinctively that no one must find out.

When the family moves to Bath, the sisters have to conform to the expectations demanded of polite society and accepted behaviour means that secrets are harder to keep here.

Peggy continues to keep her sister safe but as she herself finds romance, and loyalties are challenged, their situation becomes more complex.

This is an amazing book of so many different layers. In tandem with Peggy and Molly's story, we also read about another young woman finding her way in life, two generations earlier. Her story sheds another dimension to what we learn about Peggy and Molly.

A compelling and poignant story, the book explores family, love and sacrifice, the institute of marriage and the role of women, mental illness and its treatment, money and class, and also art, of course.

Date of this review: January 2024
Book publication date: 29th February 2024