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Emily Howes' review of "The Painter's Daughters" focuses on the girls depicted in Gainsborough's artwork.

Emily Howes’ review of “The Painter’s Daughters” focuses on the girls depicted in Gainsborough’s artwork.


Many moms and dads desire to capture a single moment in time and keep their kids at that age forever, but not many possess the incredible gift of Thomas Gainsborough to make it a reality. He painted his two daughters, Mary and Margaret (also known as Molly and Peggy), with love, admiration, and at times, concern. As Peggy, one of the daughters and the narrator of The Painter’s Daughters, explains, Gainsborough captured a bond so strong it could be felt, with their steady gazes always locked on each other.

Creating fiction based on familiar and well-recognized portraits is an ambitious endeavor, but Howes successfully brings to life Molly and Peggy in a way that does not fall short of their painted depictions. As youngsters, they exude joy and humor and their strong bond is just as evident as it is in the artwork. Peggy’s inner world is captivating and believable.

She dislikes the painted “twins” and their mother’s superficial appearance and claims of nobility. The Gainsborough sisters cannot measure up to their portraits and struggle to conceal their internal struggles. Molly experiences frightening episodes where her eyes become blank and she acts irrationally. Their parents ignore Molly’s condition and the children keep it a secret, with Peggy taking on the role of her sister’s caretaker.

The girls’ evolution from carefree and dirty fun in the fields near Ipswich to a lifestyle where they are constantly sewing and looking out the window in Bath is heartbreakingly tragic. In a society known for its enjoyment, where famous artist Gainsborough paints portraits of the wealthy and their daughters are expected to maintain a good reputation, Peggy’s sense of duty towards her sister becomes overwhelming. Her feelings of helplessness and anxiety, which occasionally manifest into violent outbursts, are portrayed sensitively. The ongoing cycle of starvation, bingeing, and purging that Peggy falls into is also depicted effectively. However, it is unfortunate that the main cause of Peggy’s distress – her sister Molly’s mental decline – is not as convincing.

It’s unclear what is wrong: absence seizures? Dissociation? Whatever the episodes are, they’re brief and narratively convenient, and Peggy can snap Molly out of them with violence. It’s paint-by-numbers Georgian lunacy rather than a clear clinical presentation. The author’s note posits that the real Molly Gainsborough lived with porphyria, the genetic condition alleged to have caused King George III’s madness and famed purple urine, but this doesn’t really fit either. Porphyria is a complex disease of the nervous system and the skin; Molly exhibits only the headline symptoms shared by the king.

The attribution of George III’s illness to a physical rather than mental disorder was first suggested in the 1960s and was explicitly seen as relieving the royals of “the taint of madness”. Nowadays he’s more usually regarded as having lived with bipolar disorder. Does this matter in the context of fiction? Howes portrays Molly’s anguish – and her family’s terror – incredibly well, after all. The heart is there.

However, in a novel that revolves around appearances and hidden truths, the decision to rely on an outdated diagnosis for the sake of saving face seems out of place. This ties in with a subplot that takes place 40 years earlier, which, while intriguing, feels unnecessary as the novel is already well-crafted. It may have been more effective to remove this subplot and instead focus on accurately portraying one of the conditions that Molly Gainsborough is typically associated with, such as depression or early-onset dementia. With Howes’ extensive knowledge on topics ranging from Georgian pigments to familial tension, she certainly has the ability to realistically depict the devastating impact an illness had on an 18th-century patient and their loved ones.

However, the novel stands out in its portrayal of the eerie dualities of portraits, sisterhood, and the contrast between private and public personas. Molly, in frustration, exclaims “I am not you and you are not me,” yet Peggy acknowledges, “I can’t even begin to differentiate where she ends and I begin.” Like their turbulent parents, the girls are like a set of scales, constantly shifting and difficult to balance. They are not the only ones named Mary or Margaret; Molly is named after the Gainsboroughs’ first child who passed away, and Peggy shares her name with her mother and grandmother. These constant replicas, twins, and reflections merge together, leaving no one with their own distinct identity, except perhaps Gainsborough himself.

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“I am a trick of the eye,” declares Peggy as her father paints her. She understands that being moved by a portrait is not the same as being moved by the real girls, who are not physically present, but rather by her father’s skill in creating the illusion of their presence. The portraits are not just a display of paternal affection, but also a showcase of his talent. Gainsborough’s presence is always felt, “[revealing] himself when it is you, and you alone, who fill[s] the canvas”. The Painter’s Daughters is convincing, captivating, and transporting, once again bringing Molly and Peggy to life and yet always guided by the author’s vision.

Source: theguardian.com