‘The Ghost of Lily Painter’ is a new novel from author Caitlin Davies. It has been described as a ‘Mr Whicher’ style hit by The Independent on Sunday and with the combination of ghost story and historical references, is a book which will appeal to Sarah Waters fans.
As soon as I saw the cover of this book I knew I was going to like it; the haunting pencil drawing of the terraced house and the Edwardian woman and the sepia colouring all suggested a sense of intrigue and history; I was not disappointed.
The story centres around Annie Sweet and her daughter Molly who move into an old house in Stanley Road, Holloway, London. When Annie’s marriage to her husband Ben falls apart, she is left to bring up her daughter alone and throws herself headlong into her obsession about finding out more about the house which she feels has ‘chosen her’ and the people who used to live there. Told through the wonderfully executed characters of an Edwardian Inspector writing a journal, his lodger Lily Painter and modern-day Annie, the ‘first person’ narrative is engaging and adds great authenticity to the historical elements of the novel.
The novel moves easily through Edwardian London, modern day London and wartime London – spanning 100 years in total. While occasionally novels which are as ambitious in their time-span can confuse and lose the reader, this certainly doesn’t. It has been excellently researched and plotted with a richness of detail which immediately immerses you into the relevant period of time.
From the very beginning, I was fascinated by the character of Lily Painter, who is introduced in the first chapter as a ghost describing the scenes she is watching in a family house; the occupants unaware of her presence. It’s an intriguing hook and although the novel is based on the disturbing true story of two ‘baby farmers’ (women who took young unmarried mother’s into their home with the promise of a better life for their babies) who were hanged for their crimes of infanticide, the author manages to blend fact and fiction seamlessly and handles the subject skilfully – retaining a necessary degree of suspense and shock, without making it too disturbing to read.
‘The Ghost of Lily Painter’ is the sort of book you can’t put down. Whether you pack it in your bag for the beach or keep it for a rainy Sunday snuggled up on the sofa, you will rip through this to find out the real truth about Lily Painter and her family and to see whether, through Annie’s investigations, Lily’s ghost will ever be able to rest. If you live in an old house, I guarantee you will pay more attention to those creaks on the stairs and draughts of cold air after reading this!
I haven’t read Cailtin’s previous novels but will definitely check them out and will absolutely be keeping an eye out for her next novel which will be in a similar style.
The author, Caitlin Davies is the daughter of writers Margaret Forster and Hunter Davies who is probably best known for his biography of ‘The Beatles’. Her previous novels include the memoir ‘Place of Reeds’, and novels ’Black Mulberries’ and ‘Friends Like Us.’ She lives in north London with her daughter Ruby and I spoke to her about the book and her writing life.
‘The Ghost of Lily Painter’ is based on true events. How did you discover the story and how did you go about the research?
Three years ago I moved into a new home, a small terraced house in Holloway, north London. For some reason, from the moment I saw the house, I wondered who had lived there before me. Then one night I looked up my address on the 1901 online census and up popped a three-page list of all the former inhabitants. The census only gave the bare bones – names, ages, occupations – and I wanted to find out more about how these people would have lived in the early 1900s.
One day I was reading about nearby Holloway Prison when I stumbled across a brief paragraph on all the women who had been executed there, including Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, the baby farmers. I’d never heard the term baby farmer and so I set about trying to find more. I read the transcripts of their trial at the Old Bailey, plus lots of Edwardian newspaper reports on their arrest and execution, as well as some more scholarly works on infanticide. I also interviewed a retired policewoman and a criminologist, and re-traced the baby farmers’ steps, visiting all the places they’d lived and worked. At the end of my research something spooky happened, when a woman contacted me out of the blue to say Amelia Sach was her great grandmother’s sister!
Was it particularly difficult to research a topic as sensitive as baby farming?
Yes it was harrowing because you’re reading about women who killed – or who were charged with killing – children. I thought about writing a non-fiction book, but decided that would be too upsetting. So I invented a fictional character who would turn to the baby farmers for help.
What appeals to you about the periods of history you cover in the book, particularly Edwardian London?
It wasn’t a conscious choice. I’d found the former inhabitants of my house on the 1901 census. Sach and Walters were arrested in 1902, so it seemed natural to set at least some of the novel in Edwardian London. While it was hard finding out about the lives of ordinary people, I was struck by the amount of entertainment on offer at the time, and that’s why I made my heroine a music hall singer.
With both your parents being successful writers, do you think it was inevitable that you would become an author too? How did you start out?
I’m often asked about a ‘writing gene’ but I don’t know if there is one! Having parents who are writers doesn’t mean you’ll become one, but then again I have always wanted to write. When I was 11, I secretly entered a magazine competition, I say secretly because writing was something I always did but didn’t necessarily talk about.
I finished my first complete novel at 19, and despite my parents being writers, I had no idea what to do with it, so I made a pile of books I’d enjoyed reading, and sent it off to a handful of publishers. Surprise! They all sent it straight back. So then I wrote another novel. And another. Then I got a great agent and she’s stuck with me ever since.
What is the most enjoyable aspect of being an author?
I don’t know where to begin! Having ideas and then the luxury to develop them. Each day being different from the next. Being my own boss. Being able to work around my daughter’s school hours. Someone reading your book and saying they stayed up to 3am to finish it. You can’t get better than that….
If you could have written any book (other than your own), which would it be, and why?
There are a few children’s books I’d liked to have written, the ones that I never minded reading over and over again at bed time, like Where the Wild Things Are, The Tiger who Came to Tea, and Not Now Bernard. There’s something hypnotic and bizarre about these books.
What three words would best describe your writing style?
Easy to read. (Does that count as three words?!)
It does! I think ‘compelling, haunting and authentic’ would sum up ‘Lily Painter’. So, what’s next for you? Can we expect more in the style of ‘The Ghost of Lily Painter’?
Next is a novel about a woman who discovers a family secret and instead of immersing herself in research, she’s hell bent on revenge. The style is similar, with different time frames and different voices, but this one is a bit ‘darker’.
Thank you to Caitlin for her time and for sharing her insights into this fascinating book and also to Marissa Cox at Random House for sending me a review copy. You can contact Caitlin on Twitter @CaitlinDavies2