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THE PAINTER'S DAUGHTERS by Emily Howes Kirkus Star


by Emily Howes

Pub Date: Feb. 27th, 2024
ISBN: 9781668021385
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

The women in 18th-century British painter Thomas Gainsborough’s family are the subject of this portrait in words.

As promised by the title, Howes delivers an immersive dive into the lives of Gainsborough’s daughters but also provides an intriguing backstory about his wife’s purported ancestry. The Gainsborough girls—Molly the elder and Peggy a bit younger—enjoy a fairly feral and unrestrained early childhood in Suffolk, despite their mother’s attempts to rein them in. Molly shows signs of a troubling tendency toward spells of odd behavior and confusion, which continue, and worsen, after the family relocates to the more fashionable city of Bath, a move undertaken to expose the girls (who sometimes model for their father) to a more civilized way of life and advance Gainsborough’s career as a portrait artist. Terrified that she and Molly will be separated and that Molly’s condition will expose her to ridicule and, worse, institutionalization in a barbaric “Bedlam,” Peggy develops a system of coping mechanisms and evasive tactics in an attempt to keep them together. Running parallel to the girls’ story is the unfolding saga of the earlier life of Meg, a young Englishwoman from an impoverished background with a history of familial violence and loss. Meg’s secret relationship with the visiting Frederick of Hanover (then Prince of Wales) leads her to take bold steps to secure her future and that of their secretly conceived child. The struggle between genetics and secrecy is just one of the themes explored by Howes in this subtle exploration of love, duty, and resentment. The author’s note details her research into Gainsborough and his circle, illuminating which parts of the narrative are grounded in fact and which are imaginative embellishment.

A thoughtful view of the real lives behind the pretty pictures.