The Huntingfield Paintress is a novel with a blurb that captured my attention but which doesn’t really give a great deal away. I’m wondering how much to say about the plot in my review as the task that Mildred Holland undertakes really happened and is well documented, and yet it’s something I knew nothing about and so I approached the story completely fresh.
Mildred and her husband, William, come to Huntingfield, a small Suffolk village, so that he can take up his position as Rector of the church there. They had spent the previous eight years travelling on the continent, seeing sights that most people at the time couldn’t hope to see, for this is the mid-1800s. After such incredible experiences, Mildred finds Huntingfield too quiet, she is stifled and feels she does not have a role to play. Of course, she’s the Rector’s wife and there are demands that come with that but she feels adrift.
Until, that is, she takes on a huge project, connected to the church. She decides to paint the ceiling. For a woman to do such a thing at that time, well it was quite shocking, especially for the closeted villagers. What often amazes me in historical fiction is the scorn and hatred for a strong woman, not least by fellow women. Thank goodness we have moved on from that.
Mildred is indeed a strong woman. I thought she was magnificent. This is the author’s imagining as not much is known about the real Mildred, but surely she must have been incredibly plucky to even consider going against the conventions of the time and taking on such a gargantuan task.
I’ll admit I found the first half of the book a little slow. It sets the scene for Mildred’s growing discomfort with her purpose in life and is necessary to fully portray that, but I was always waiting for something to happen and then it did and it was wonderful. I flew through the second half of the story and loved every bit of it, leading up to an ending that left me feeling really quite emotional.
This is fiction with a root based in reality, something I really enjoy. The writing is beautiful and the characterisations are perfectly done. I found The Huntingfield Paintress to be an absorbing and fascinating read, one that showcases the legacy that Mildred Holland left behind.
Nicola Smith, Short Book and Scribes, 4/4
The Huntingfield Paintress by Pamela Holmes
Urbane Publications 9781910692660 pbk May 2016