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The Painter's Daughters

A novel by

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.

Genre: Historical

Praise for this book

"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

"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." - Chloë Ashby

"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

"Beautifully written, moving and skillfully handled, The Painter's Daughters is as exquisitely and tenderly rendered as a Gainsborough painting." - Tracy Chevalier

"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

"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

"A deeply touching tale of two sisters that probes the difference between love and self-sacrifice. Fascinating." - Priscilla Morris

"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

"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

"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

"A feast for the senses and the joy of a story well told - a beautiful debut." - Jo Browning Wroe

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