IN A small village in Suffolk, there was an unkempt medieval church. This is the true story of how St Mary’s, Huntingfield, was transformed by one woman’s efforts. The tale is embroidered and enlarged: fiction overlays the facts. But the church still stands beside the woods, and it is beautiful, thanks to Mildred Holland.
Pamela Holmes has reimagined Mildred’s life, following her from the evening in the autumn of 1848 when she arrives at the rectory with her husband, the Revd William Holland, to the spring of 1866. We are encouraged to enter her world, and to feel her isolation.
Her early married life was spent abroad, enjoying the warmth of the Mediterranean and the drama of the Alps. A few months after she moves into the rectory, her travelling trunks are delivered. As she opens them, seeing the silks and smelling the scent of the bazaar again, Mildred is overwhelmed with a sense of loss. In Huntingfield, the “colours were muted and washed out”.
While her husband is excited by the prospect of working “as hard as heart and soul allow” to bring the congregation closer to God, she becomes frustrated. The couple have been inspired by the Oxford Movement to hope for renewal of faith in their parish, by offering the beauty of holiness to the villagers. William establishes a school, repairs the church, and finds work for the unemployed and homes for families on poor relief. Mildred tries to fit in, but she feels like a bystander, redundant like the farm workers whom she visits.
This is a novel about labour and creation, giving birth, and renewing lives through art. As women take centre-stage, we hear their concerns as mothers and childless wives. The author explores desire, beyond and within marriage. She shows how that sustains the Hollands.
The writing is also sensitive to the flaws and disabilities of the characters. Several of the women are struggling with depression or grief or dementia. Mildred faces her own pain, physical and emotional. She wonders whether she is mad to take on her task, but decides that she is “happily insane”. She finds an ally in a man who has lost a leg in an accident at work, and together they defy the expectations of the community, in their exertions to fill the church with colour and delight.
The turning-point comes when the Hollands visit Southwold, to see the restoration of a massive medieval church. As she steps inside, Mildred sees the architect, Edward Blackburne, at work high up near the ceiling: “He’s flying, William,” she says. “He’s up there with the angels.” This sensation of being lifted to heaven, of seeing the world from a new vantage point, lies at the heart of the story. Mildred rediscovers her zest for living as she decides to decorate the chancel of St Mary’s with angels and saints, painted in blues and greens and gold.
She overcomes suspicion from the local people, and her own fears. She knows that she has the will to persuade her husband, but does she have the artistic talent? And how will she be able to work at height? There are some telling moments when she compares her own position with that of other women on other scaffolds, waiting for the drop. As she finds it harder to climb the ladders, she is winched up to the painting platform, “swinging about like a bird on a breeze”. Mildred is no longer confined by her position as the Rector’s wife.
The historical setting of the tale could use a little tweaking. Holmes misjudges several dates — the Great Exhibition, the first Baedeker travel guides, and the establishment of William Morris’s decorative firm, for example. This may bother some readers, but, by and large, the novel captures the concerns of the early Victorian world, especially the part played by women, and Ritualist revivals in worship.
Towards the end, we see Mildred as she paints St Margaret of Antioch on a beam over the nave. Mildred acknowledges Margaret as the patron saint of women in childbed. She lingers over this figure, and prays, remembering “a beauty that was worth the agony of delivery”. We can finally understand the point of her painful project.
Dr Suzanne Fagence Cooper is a cultural historian with an interest in Victorian and 20th-century Britain. She is Research Curator for the exhibition “Ruskin, Turner and the Storm Cloud” at York Art Gallery.
The Huntingfield Paintress by Pamela Holmes is published by Urbane Publications at £8.99; 978-1-910692-66-0.
THE HUNTINGFIELD PAINTRESS — SOME QUESTIONS
- How do you think our youthful experiences shape us as we get older?
- “How could life change so utterly?” Have you ever had to experience a significant life-change like Mildred’s? How did you cope?
- Mildred and William struggle with infertility, in a period when motherhood was considered the proper occupation for a vicar’s wife. What challenges (and opportunities) does this present for Mildred?
- Initially, some of the villagers find it difficult to contemplate the restorative changes being made in the church. What factors might underlie this resistance?
- Edward suggests raising the chancel floor to “create that important distinction between the officiant and his flock”. How does the layout of a church affect your experience inside it?
- Mildred’s efforts are described as a “quest to inspire a love of God through a love of beauty”. What examples have inspired you?
- How do the women in this novel struggle with the parts they are expected to play in 19th-century society?
- How does mental health feature in the novel? Are mental-health problems recognised by the 19th-century characters?
- What part does William play in this novel? Is he a black-and-white character?
- Mildred describes herself as “not the finest of artists”, but “a brave and committed one”. What, for you, makes a fine artist?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 April, we will print extra information about our next book. This is With the End in Mind: How to live and die well by Kathryn Mannix. It is published by William Collins at £9.99 (£9); 978-0-00-821091-5.
In With the End in Mind, Kathryn Mannix recounts a series of stories of the last days of some of her patients’ lives. They include a young bride who does not want to believe that she is dying; a head teacher given a diagnosis of motor neurone disease; and a mother who hopes to go to her daughter’s wedding. Mannix often pauses to consider people’s varied approaches to death, and readers are invited to do likewise. Her reflections are motivated by the conviction that, by increasing communication and knowledge about the process of dying, it might be possible to reduce the fear of death and embrace the final days of life.
Kathryn Mannix qualified as a doctor in 1982, and began her career working with cancer patients. In 1986, she moved into palliative care, which was then a pioneering field, and subsequently practised as a consultant in hospice, hospital, and community settings in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She is also a qualified cognitive-behaviour therapist (CBT) and founded the first dedicated palliative-care CBT clinic in the UK. In 2015, she retired from clinical practice to spend more time campaigning to improve the public understanding of the process of death. With the End in Mind is her first book.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
May: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
June: The Salt Path by Raynor Winn