The latest debut author in the spotlight is fellow Urbane author, Pamela Holmes, whose novel The Huntingfield Paintress is a fictionalised tale of a real person’s life. That person being Mildred Holland, a vicar’s wife living in rural Suffolk in Victorian England. It’s a fascinating account of her fight to do and be what she wants to be in a time when women didn’t really have that much choice.
Was it difficult to write from the point of view from a character that was real – did it inhibit you in any way? What approach did you take to find her voice?
I found out everything I could about Mildred Holland (1813 – 1878) and the times in which she lived. In the British Library, I read about the role of women, parish life, the impact of industrialisation on rural areas and the Gothic revival. A local amateur historian with an interest in the genealogy had commissioned a Holland family tree and let me pore over it. Diaries and accounts of people who had taken a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe like Mildred and Willian did for eight years in their early married life gave me insight into what they may have seen.
I interviewed art historians and restorers about painting techniques in the 1850s as well as scanning architectural magazines from The British Institute of Architecture to understand more about that profession. Completing all this research was ultimately liberating for it gave me the impetus, the structure with which to focus my imagination. Mildred’s voice emerged from it all. I realised I knew where she came from, what and why she would want to act or might feel in a particular way. So it was not difficult to write from her point of view; I felt I knew her. As for what she looked like, I could find no existing photograph or description of her appearance but I think she was physically magnetic.
What inspired you about Mildred that made you want to tell her story?
I recognised that when Mildred settled in Huntingfield after eight years travelling the Continent with her husband, she was in limb. The opportunities to express herself, to do something for herself were few. She was a vicar’s wife. She could run the home, support her husband, serve tea to guests, administer goodly works to those in need. But that was about it. There were firm expectations about what she should do but, as importantly, what she should not.
The Huntingfield Paintress describes her journey to self-expression. The book shows us that Mildred found a way out of her situation. But to do this she needed her husband’s support and she succeeded for there is evidence that William paid for what she did. He would have come in for criticism, allowing his wife to ‘work’ although the fact that it involved religion provided some degree of acceptance. There would have questions about her morality. None of this stopped Mildred, and realising this convinced me that she was determined and clever woman who was willing and able to manipulate people to achieve her ends. That made her fascinating. An impressive woman who I liked very much but also a woman with foibles and faults.
Where did you find out about her life in Huntingfield and also her travels before she settled there?
The local library was a brilliant source of information about the area, its flora and fauna. As I became more absorbed in the writing, I decided I needed to live in Huntingfield for a time so I rented an old laundry building. I sketched, walked the hills and woods she must have wandered, went to churches and towns she may have visited. I was invited to tea in the Rectory where Mildred lived for over 30 years and drank in the pub (or tavern) which still exists in Huntingfield, where her servants may have gone even if she might not. All this helped me to understand what life may have been like there.
Before the couple settled in the village, they travelled widely. For eight years, they were in various parts of Europe, going as far as Constantinople and across the Mediterranean to Morocco. They would have seen glorious examples of medieval, Gothic and Islamic art and architecture as well as experienced the life, geography, weather and cultures of these different places.
What would it have been like to return to a tiny Suffolk village? What would they have thought of their church, a victim of the Reformation when statues, fabrics and glass showing pictures were all destroyed? Inside it was white-washed, according to an entry in the parish records from 1583, so as to cover up ornamentation. By comparison to the splendours of Venice or Florence was it just a little dull?
What did you enjoy most about writing a novel about a real person?
Mildred was at a crossroads when she settled in Huntingfield. She had had a life-changing experience travelling the Continent and she was now in a place which ostensibly afforded few opportunities to express herself. When I came across her story, I was also at a point in my life when there were choices I could make if I only could find the courage and commitment to do so. My two boys were both at University and though I had a job I enjoyed, I knew I had energy left to do more. Finding out that there was little lot known about this fascinating woman gave me the opportunity to create a version of her life that is based in truth but more importantly, I hope, is psychologically and emotionally convincing.
Will your next novel also be a fictionalised account of a real person’s life?
I’ve started writing my second novel. My ideas about it change as I write. It is not a fictionalised account of a real person’s life but, of course, draws on experiences of others as well as some of my own. I think all novels do this at some level; we watch how others cope, respond and are driven by events, circumstances, their past lives and their dreams. It is a wonderful and painful process to write, at least for me. I find this quote from Emile Zola of comfort: ‘From the moment I start a new novel, life’s just one endless torture…..’ If one of the world’s most talented, famous and erudite writers find the process hard, is it any wonder that I do?