A gentle, slow-paced novel – the perfect antidote to many contemporary novels, and a great advert for the hidden beauties of Suffolk churches. The Huntingfield Paintress is a fictionalised account of the life and work of Mildred Holland, the adventurous and determined wife of the vicar of St. Mary’s, a tiny church in one of the forgotten villages in Suffolk. The main theme of the novel is her constant battle against Victorian ideals of what is appropriate for a woman. Certainly not clambering up ladders to restore the ceiling of the church.
After several years travelling with her husband in Europe, she arrives in Huntingfield, a sleepy backwater in deeply rural Suffolk. Mildred’s collection of colourful fabrics and souvenirs is consigned to the attic and she has to be content with visiting the sick and arranging the church flowers. She finds it claustrophobic and stultifying and eventually becomes ill. It’s only when she is inspired to fill the church with brilliant colour and gilded angels (with advice from an architect) that she finds happiness and fulfils her artistic potential.
There are echoes of George Eliot’s Middlemarch in the complexity of village life with all the social strata laid bare. There are servants, visiting gentry and some well-drawn characters. The unpleasant, bed-ridden Judy Scott, who feasts on news and gossip from the other villagers then broadcasts her disapproval, is particularly memorable. I was also reminded of Middlemarch‘s Dorothea and Casaubon in the relationship between Mildred and her husband, William – a creative woman reduced to playing second fiddle to a man whose own work obsesses him, and who doesn’t understand her frustration. Fortunately in this case the marriage is a happy one and Mildred finds her forte. There are other temptations thrown in but her art always wins.
Pamela Holmes clearly loves her subject. Without making it dry, she has researched the historical background thoroughly and integrated it seamlessly, making the whole novel come alive. It’s fascinating to imagine the life of a woman who undertook such an arduous task (over several years), balancing in the dark and cold, sixty feet above the ground, to restore a neglected church, damaged by Puritan zeal, to create an enduring work of art. I imagine writing the book itself must have been a similar labour of love.
I was disappointed when I looked up England’s Thousand Best Churches to find that St. Mary’s wasn’t mentioned, although there is a St. John’s in Needham Market, also in Suffolk which features angels. And there is also the famous angel roof of St. Wendreda’s in March in the next county, Cambridgeshire which boasts 118 angels.
The Huntingfield Paintress is a fascinating glimpse into mid 19th century village life and an exploration of women and art which, in spite of progress in gender equality, is still relevant today. The novel throws light on the overwhelming barriers women faced in this country and the extraordinary lengths they went to overcome them.