The Painter's Daughters: A Novel (Hardcover)

The Painter's Daughters: A Novel By Emily Howes Cover Image
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A “beautifully written” (Hilary Mantel) story of love, madness, sisterly devotion, and control, about the two beloved daughters of renowned 1700s English painter Thomas Gainsborough, who struggle to live up to the perfect image the world so admired in their portraits.

Peggy and Molly Gainsborough—the daughters of one of England’s most famous portrait artists of the 1700s and the frequent subject of his work—are best friends. They spy on their father as he paints, rankle their mother as she manages the household, and run barefoot through the muddy fields that surround their home. But there is another reason they are inseparable: from a young age, Molly periodically experiences bouts of mental confusion, even forgetting who she is, and Peggy instinctively knows she must help cover up her sister’s condition.

When the family moves to Bath, it’s not so easy to hide Molly’s slip-ups. There, the sisters are thrown into the whirlwind of polite society, where the codes of behavior are crystal clear. Molly dreams of a normal life but slides deeper and more publicly into her delusions. By now, Peggy knows the shadow of an asylum looms for women like Molly, and she goes to greater lengths to protect her sister’s secret.

But when Peggy unexpectedly falls in love with her father’s friend, the charming composer Johann Fischer, the sisters’ precarious situation is thrown catastrophically off course. Her burgeoning love for Johann sparks the bitterest of betrayals, forcing Peggy to question all she has done for Molly, and whether any one person can truly change the fate of another.

A tense and tender examination of the blurred lines between protection and control, The Painter’s Daughters is a searing portrait of the real girls behind the canvas. Emily Howes’s debut is a stunning exploration of devotion, control, and individuality; it is a love song to sisterhood, to the many hues of life, and to being looked at but never really seen.

About the Author

Emily Howes is the author of numerous short stories that have been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, the Bath Short Story Award, and the New Scottish Writing Award. Her debut novel, The Painter’s Daughters, was the winner of the 2021 Mslexia Novel Prize for unpublished manuscripts. In addition to writing fiction, Emily has been a theater director and performer. She works as a psychotherapist in private practice and is completing a masters in existential psychotherapy.

Praise For…

One of the BBC's Most Anticipated Books of 2024

“Emily Howes places the relationship of Peggy and Molly Gainsborough front and center. From the very beginning, it’s clear there’s something wrong with Molly…. Although one year younger, Peggy resolves to care for her sister by hiding her sporadic bouts of mental illness, terrified Molly will wind up in the ‘madhouse.’… Interspersed with Peggy’s account of her family is another narrative, set a generation earlier, that may explain the shameful mystery surrounding her mother’s background and perhaps even the root cause of Molly’s malady.”—New York Times (A Best Historical Fiction book of March 2023)

“As children, Peggy and Molly, daughters of English painter Thomas Gainsborough, are inseparable, cavorting through fields and spying on their father’s work. Although Peggy is the younger of the girls, she instinctively knows she must look after Molly, who is prone to spells of confusion. When the family moves to Bath to improve their station, the demands of polite society make it harder to conceal Molly’s condition. Meanwhile, each of the young women catches the eye of a man who, unbeknownst to them, courts them both, causing a rift that could destroy their bond. A dual storyline delves into their family’s history and involves fascinating speculation about the possible origins of Molly’s illness.”—Washington Post

“Howes delivers an immersive dive into the lives of Gainsborough’s daughters but also provides an intriguing backstory about his wife’s purported ancestry…. A thoughtful view of the real lives behind the pretty pictures.”Kirkus, starred review

"It’s ambitious to draw fiction from such beloved and well-known portraits but Howes’s fictionalised Molly and Peggy don’t pale in comparison to their painted counterparts . . . beguiling and convincing . . . sensitively handled . . . Howes portrays Molly’s anguish – and her family’s terror – incredibly well . . . Howes writes so knowledgeably on everything from Georgian pigments to the tensions of sisterly love . . . the novel shines when it comes to the spooky duality of portraits, of sisterhood, of private and public faces . . . The Painter’s Daughters is convincing, engaging, transporting."--Guardian

“An enthralling drama of sisterly devotion and deception…this artistically inspired debut novel is faithful to the factual details of the Gainsborough sisters' lives while deploying seductive literary embellishments to fill in for the unknowable gaps in their family history.”—Shelf Awareness, starred review

“The narrative glue is the complicated relationship between Molly and Peggy, a bond dominated by the specter of mental illness and what its discovery could do to the family’s social standing and livelihood. Howes' debut is a work of absorbing biographical fiction exploring love, self-sacrifice, and codependency.” —Booklist

“[An] intricate and vibrant debut…Howes excels in her depiction of truth and rumors. Readers will want to linger in this singular world.” —Publishers Weekly

“Sibling bonds, arts and artifice, mental illness and marriage twine together in a story that was inspired by Gainsborough’s portrait of his daughters, Peggy and Molly. Plunged into Bath polite society, their closeness is thrown into confusion as Peggy falls in love and Molly’s illness threatens incarceration in an asylum.”—The Daily Mail
“A superb debut . . . a deft portrait of a family beset by madness, self-delusion and artistic temperament, a celebration of childhood innocence and a reminder of how fleeting it is . . . hugely impressive . . . a novel that heroically refuses to simplify anything . . . the pages fly by so readably that it’s only thinking about the book later – or reviewing it – that you realise quite how rich it is . . . We learn a lot of fascinating stuff about Gainsborough without feeling remotely lectured. Every place and time in which the novel touches down feels thoroughly imagined . . . beautifully effective . . . an explosively ironic twist . . . a wonderfully accomplished debut.”—Daily Telegraph

“Telling of hidden parentage, suffocating social mores and the humiliation of ‘madness’, The Painter’s Daughters is a densely packed, glittering novel, with as much detail and intrigue as one of Gainsborough’s own canvases.”—The Mail on Sunday

“The vibrant narrative leaves little to the imagination as Howes delves beneath the surface of Gainsborough’s portraits to discover stories and incidents that are infinitely less poised and lacking in restraint than their painted representations.” —Spectator

“A story of obsessive love, genius and mental illness.” –Country Life

The Painter’s Daughters is beautifully written…I raced through it. Howes’s research is filtered through contemporary consciousness and deployed with skill. It’s a polished performance.”—HILARY MANTEL

“Beautifully written, moving and skillfully handled, The Painter’s Daughters is as exquisitely and tenderly rendered as a Gainsborough painting.”—TRACY CHEVALIER, author of Girl With a Pearl Earring
“A beautifully written, impressively researched novel about sisterly love, art and sacrifice, The Painter's Daughters is historical fiction at its finest. Both entertaining and enlightening, it swept me along in its galloping pace while teaching me about a world I never knew. Howes is a talent to be reckoned with. Wonderful.”EMMA STONEX, author of The Lamplighters

"A thoughtful and thought-provoking debut novel that brings to life the daughters of painter Thomas Gainsborough. Emily Howes is a talented writer who vividly evokes Regency England but doesn’t shy away from exploring how its glittering society could constrain and threaten young women. An engaging and enjoyable mix of historical fact and beautifully-imagined fiction."—JOANNA QUINN, New York Times bestselling author of The Whalebone Theatre

"A marvellous novel, up there with some of my favourite works of historical fiction. Emily Howes’ evocation of the Gainsborough sisters’ relationship is truly remarkable and the novel is a sensory delight, full of evocative descriptions that bring the past to life. I loved it."—WHITNEY SCHARER, author of The Age of Light

"In the tradition of Maggie O’Farrell and Tracy Chevalier, Emily Howes brings us the story of Thomas Gainsborough’s two daughters, Molly and Margaret, whom she imagines were equal parts muse and millstone for the famed eighteenth-century portrait painter. Howes’ thorough research and exquisite prose brings both girls to life, but it is the author’s deep understanding of mental illness and how it affects families that sets the novel apart. Emily Howes is a true talent, and I did not want this book to end."—RACHEL BEANLAND, author of The House is on Fire and Florence Adler Swims Forever

“A feast for the senses and the joy of a story well told – a beautiful debut.” —JO BROWNING WROE, author of A Terrible Kindness

“I loved The Painter’s Daughters – a vivid, sad, beautiful novel about sisters.”—AMY KEY, author of Arrangements in Blue

“A brilliant novel . . . the writing is sublime. It is like being transported back in time. I didn’t want the story to end. If you enjoyed Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, you’ll love this.”­—KAREN ANGELICO, author of Everything We Are

"A mesmerising and at times quietly devastating tale of two sisters, art, shared suffering and love. With The Painter’s Daughters, Emily Howes has pulled off the finest of balancing acts, combining rich and evocative historical detail with a light and contemporary writerly touch." —CHLOE ASHBY, author of Second Self

“A deeply touching tale of two sisters that probes the difference between love and self-sacrifice. Fascinating.”—PRISCILLA MORRIS, author of Black Butterflies

“A moving exploration of the familial ties that bind us and the grief of a life half-lived . . . a wonderful debut that lingered with me.”—ELIZABETH MACNEAL, author of The Doll Factory

Product Details
ISBN: 9781668021385
ISBN-10: 1668021382
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: February 27th, 2024
Pages: 352
Language: English