Skip to content
Translate page
Change text size
More +
Meet the Author

Meet the Author: Emily Howes

Emily Howes Image © Katrina Campbell

Emily Howes has worked as a storyteller, theatre maker, performer, writer and director in stage, television and comedy since 2003.

As a writer and performer, she has worked predominantly in comedy creating work for stage, radio and television, with highlights including two series of her own sketch show, The Ladies, for BBC Radio 4 / HatTrick Productions, and Our Baby Diary directed by John Morton for BBC Comedy.

Emily's first novel is The Painter's Daughters, winner of the 2021 Mslexia Novel Prize. The Painter's Daughters is the fictionalised story of Peggy and Molly Gainsborough, daughters of Suffolk painter Thomas Gainsborough. The Painter's Daughters will be published by Phoenix on 29 February and you can find it on our catalogue.

Who were your influences as you were growing up and did you have books around you as a child or use a library?

I grew up in a tiny town, Brightlingsea, in Essex, but it had a wonderful local library and I was a fanatical user of it, probably because my mum encouraged me. I remember always taking out the maximum fourteen books at a time, and staggering over to the librarian to get all the pink tickets stamped. She was called Mrs Goodenough, and was very much a fixture in my life. I thought about her with a kind of awe.

Being able to use the library changed my childhood, in terms of the range of books I was able to access, and it made reading into a kind of event, because I’d always be taken down there on a Saturday to go back and choose more. I think I was very lucky.

Among your theatrical credits are the Cambridge Footlights. What was it like to take part in such a famous production?

It was quite surreal, and exciting. A lot of the people I was involved with at that time have gone on to be successful in the world of comedy and theatre – Dan Stevens, Alex Horne, Mark Watson, Tim Key, Tom Basden, among others. It was quite a male world, which brings its problems, but I had a brilliant time, especially on tour after University.

You have written in a variety of formats for theatre, sketch shows and film scripts. Which format do you feel most comfortable in?

There’s something wonderful about theatre, because it’s really a collaborative writing process. It’s very joyful, because if you’re stuck, you’re all stuck together, and when it works, you all feel the exhilaration together. With my theatre company, we used to write a lot with live sound, creating atmospheres together, perhaps dripping buckets in each corner of the stage to create the feeling of a damp cellar. I try to write my fiction like that too, so that it engages and speaks through all the senses.

Also, in theatre you’ve got to keep the story at the heart of everything, and sweep people along, so it’s a good test of your ability to keep people hooked. It’s a challenge. With fiction, I’m alone. But there are advantages to that too.

You won the Mslexia Novel Competition in 2021. How did that help you in terms of recognition?

Having Hilary Mantel as the lead judge, and then hearing such lovely words from her, was life-changing. I will always be grateful to her, as I know a lot of other authors will, for her generosity to those of us emerging after her. People sit up and took notice when they hear her name. And Mslexia, too, do so much to re-democratise the writing process, and to support women who write by creating a sense of community available to all. I definitely benefited from that.

The Painter's Daughters is your debut novel. Can you tell us a little about it?

It’s the story of Peggy and Molly Gainsborough, the daughters of the painter Thomas Gainsborough, who was, of course, born in Suffolk. My story begins there, in their Ipswich house, where the two girls ran barefoot through the countryside and got into a lot of wild mischief. Their father’s paintings of them as children capture this innocence and intimacy, but as they grow older, shadows begin to settle. Molly, the older sister, suffers from bouts of mental instability, and Peggy knows instinctively that she has to protect her.

Their story is very little known, and I was astonished and moved to discover it. I also loved writing the world of 18th century Bath, with all its exquisite beauty and extravagance, and I loved writing about paint and being painted, too. The girls spent their life being looked at but never really seen. It's really a book about sisterhood, love and sacrifice, and asks how much we are prepared to give up for the people we love.

Suffolk is very important in the book. Peggy and Molly’s childhood is, in many ways, the time when they were happiest, and as they are tugged out of rural life and into the highest echelons of fashionable society by Gainsborough’s meteoric ascent, they find themselves increasingly trapped by the changing expectations placed on them. I also grew up in the East Anglian countryside, among the gorse and mudflats, and for me, too, it will always feel like home.

We all know about Gainsborough the portrait painter but not so much is known about his daughters Peggy and Molly. How long did it take to research The Painter's Daughters and what kind of primary sources were available for you to use?

I started with a great recent biography of Gainsborough by James Hamilton. It only touches on the girls, as so little is known about them, but I was able to use words Gainsborough wrote about them in his letters as part of his dialogue in my book. I also used Susan Sloman’s beautiful set of books on different aspects of Gainsborough’s life. Looking back, the writing process felt like a very good balance of having enough details available to engage the imagination, but also openness to invent and shape how it might have felt. I did read a huge amount about Suffolk, Bath, and London in the eighteenth century – the three main locations for the book. I am probably the only person ever to buy the book about travelling by public coach from London to Bath in the second half of the eighteenth century.

For Meg Grey’s story, I used, among other things, the brilliant The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain by Ian Mortimer, as he covers something of how it might have felt earlier in the century too. For anyone who loves history from a fun, human perspective, I would very much recommend his books. They’re a sort of tourist guide to history and capture such a sense of place. And of course, I had Gainsborough’s pictures of all the characters in my book: his wife, his young apprentice, the love interest Johann Fischer, the beautiful Ann Ford, and of course Peggy and Molly as children and then as adults. They were all pinned to my noticeboard above my desk like old friends.

What is next for you?

I am working on my second novel, which is called Mrs Dickens. It’s the story of Kate, the wife of Charles, who bore him ten children, wrote a cookbook, and climbed Vesuvius. After twenty-two years of marriage, he left her for an actress. It’s a book about fat, food, and the female body, and about the way that women have been traditionally raised to willingly fulfil society’s expectations for them. I’m interested in where the line is between what we are conditioned to want, and what we actually do want for ourselves. I’ve now got Kate and Charles, and the maps of their travels, pinned to the noticeboard instead.

I am also now working in private practice as a psychotherapist in London, which I love, so will continue to do that as an important and very valued part of my working week.

We are always looking for good book recommendations. Aside from your own work what have you read recently that you really enjoyed?

I’ve just finished an advance copy of a book called One Girl Began by Kate Murray-Browne. It’s out next year. It was inspired by the site of the 1888 matchwomen’s strike and entwines the stories of three women in East London, separated by history but connected by the same building. I was hooked from the very first page. She’s a fantastic writer, and the book really makes you think about the layers of history we all live within.

You have built a successful career in theatre and written your own sketch show and productions for BBC Comedy, not to mention a career as a psychotherapist and now novelist. How do you fit it all in?

General household neglect…

Can you tell us one thing about yourself that your readers may not know?

For a while, I was the only person in the UK to be able to speak the language Lun Bawang fluently. It’s the language of a Bornean tribe, formerly known as the Murut tribe, and it has no tenses. The Lun Bawang people thought it was hilarious – I was a sort of walking party trick, and strangers would come and grab me and get me to talk. I’ve forgotten most of it now, but it’s my best secret fact about myself.