REVIEWED BY JANET BAYLISS
Pamela Holmes (Bloodhound Books:2021)
First published in 2016, this is a novel about Mildred Holland, the wife of the rector of the church of St Mary the Virgin, Huntingfield; who repainted the church ceiling in the mid-nineteenth century. When stated baldly like this, the task does not sound like so very much, but a glance at the internet, pictures in books or (even better) a visit to the church will reveal the extent of Mildred’s astonishing achievement. Working almost single-handedly on the painting itself (according to legend), she sought to re-create the magnificence of medieval church interiors including carvings, an extraordinary range of colour and lavish use of gold leaf.
Pamela Holmes takes this remarkable story and weaves a compelling narrative around it, involving sympathetic characters and believable situations as she sets the event firmly in the mindset and attitudes of the Victorian approach to women, their child bearing and capacities as related to work and leisure. The author originally wanted to write a non-fiction book about Mildred, but faced with some large gaps in the records she was forced to fictionalise. She describes some of the probable technical details of the work rather well: how Mildred converts her drawings to the boards she paints on (a medieval technique known as ‘pouncing’); or the sheer effort involved to reach the roof and paint (much of it done lying on her back, as far as is known).
I have a bit of a history with this book, having heard the author speak (very effectively) about the time it was published and buying it then. My local book group read it a couple of years later and then had a visit to the church (and lunch at the very nice pub nearby). It is now good to see it republished, much more carefully edited and with an eye-catching new cover.