This stunning first novel about the 'Michelangelo of Suffolk' brings the 19th century vividly to life

The Huntingfield Paintress
by Pamela Holmes, Urbane Publications, £9

Reading this novel sent me off to the depths of rural Suffolk, to the village of Huntingfield, so I could see for myself the phenomenon which it describes – a medieval church, restored in Victorian times, and painted up to the nines by Mildred Holland, wife of the then vicar. My journey was not wasted.

The church is truly stunning, with bright gilded angels singing from the beams, and saints and martyrs chanting in every roof panel – not merely in the chancel, but all the way down the nave. A note at the end of the book tells us that the author visited the church five years ago. “It was obvious Mildred’s story was waiting to be told. I hope I have done it justice”.

This reviewer can only say to the author – “Indeed, you have.” Pamela Holmes is a blues singer, a health journalist and a volunteer with dementia patients. This is her first novel and it is a stunning debut.

Yes, it tells the story of how a very determined woman during the late 1850s and 1860s came to decorate an entire church, doing grave damage to her back as she became the Michelangelo of East Suffolk.

It is, however, far more than a twee historical reconstruction. It is a very gritty portrait of the age. The villagers are not bucolic swains – they are poor, dirty and distrustful. The agricultural depression and the drift to the towns threatens them with destitution. Cholera nearly wipes them out – this is the era, chronicled by Holmes, of Dr John Snow’s discovery that cholera is a water-borne disease.

Women have a raw deal. One of Mildred’s few friends of her own class has – it transpires – been an artist in the past. She had a child out of wedlock, and when she eventually married, she struck a tyrannical “deal” with her husband that she would put art, with sin, into the past. (Luckily, this strand of the story has a happy and liberating ending).

Mildred’s own marriage to William Holland, the young vicar of Huntingfield, is not much fun. For the first eight years, while they are waiting for the living to drop into his lap, they tour Europe, sketching churches and experiencing aesthetic delight. Only later in the book do we discover that they lost a baby daughter, and were unable to have any more children. She loves her husband, but he does not really understand her need for emotional and spiritual fulfilment.

The village, and the county, view Mildred with distaste, and her need to wear trousers in order to keep warm while she painted the church was viewed with horror.

So, it is a story which brings the 19th century very vividly to life in all its grim detail, as well as its glorious High Church Technicolor. Above all, though, this book is itself a work of art. It is a tender, modern picture of a marriage. Pamela Holmes does not demonise the men in this book – she understands why they think as they do. It is nevertheless inevitable that we, with our modern sensibility, should feel for Mildred deeply. In one of the most heart-rending scenes, Mildred finds a little silver rattle in the dust of what was obviously once the nursery of the rectory. The maid, who comes upon her in her grief, says: “I have never seen a rich woman cry.”

We might echo this, and say we have never been so emotionally close to a woman in the past. Mildred and William’s marriage, with its muted but continued sexuality, and its repeated failures of understanding and sympathy, are the centre of the story. They linger in the mind as vividly as the Tractarian angels and somehow very Victorian-looking apostles and martyrs which Mildred has left behind at Huntingfield.

This article first appeared in the August 26 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.