The Huntingfield Paintress

Written by Pamela Holmes
Review by Clarissa Harwood

Suffolk, 1848. After traveling the world for eight years with her husband, William, Mildred Holland is not prepared to live the quiet life of a vicar’s wife in the tiny village of Huntingfield. William thinks their lives are only just starting, but the move feels to Mildred like the end of her life. Bored with her new role and chafing at the villagers’ disapproval of her unconventional ways, Mildred drifts into apathy and depression, believing she is “destined never to be an active principle, fated only to watch others.” But Mildred is also being watched, and everything she does is reported to the village gossip, Judy Scott (a wonderfully comic character), who ensures that Mildred continues to be treated with suspicion.

But when a project seems to fall into her lap, Mildred renews her interest in art and takes on a task so large and so bold that even her usually supportive husband resists her plans. To be a woman artist in mid-Victorian England was to be morally suspect, but Mildred is willing to defy everyone to pursue her passion.

This is a quiet, lyrical novel that skillfully represents the constraints placed on middle-class women of the era. Mildred Holland was a real person about whom little is known, and Holmes’s reimagining of her life is believable and sensitively rendered. I was jarred by a few anachronisms (e.g., in 1848 William apparently sees a flush toilet at the Great Exhibition, but the Exhibition didn’t exist until 1851). There were also a few shifts from past tense to present, which seemed unnecessary. Overall, an enjoyable read.