The Ghost of Lily Painter by Caitlin Davies

It begins as a contemporary story.

Annie and Ben are looking for a new home in London. When they visit 43 Stanley Road Annie knows it is “the one.” Their offer is accepted and they move in.

But things go wrong. Ben leaves Annie for his secretary. Annie is determined to hang on to her home, for herself and for her daughter Molly. Because the house speaks to her as no other has.

And so she begins to research the history of her home …

The 1901 census – the first since the house was built – revealed the names of the first residents of 43 Stanley Road. Among them were William George, a police inspector, and Lily Painter, a rising music hall star.

Lily intrigued Annie, and she continued to dig.

She found that Lily had been the victim of baby farmers – two women who had long been forgotten but who were notorious in their day – and that William George had been investigating them.

And she found that strange things, things she really couldn’t explain were happening in her home.

The story moves between four narrators – Annie, William, Lily, and another of whom I should not speak.

The shifts in narrator and period were handled very well. Each story was engaging, and I had no trouble keeping track of what was going on.

But I had a problem: the balance was off.

The history was extraordinary.

Baby farmers placed discreet advertisements. They offered care for expectant mothers. Midwives to help with the birth. A place to recover after the birth. Good homes for children whose mothers could not keep them.

Imagine what a godsend they must have seemed to young women who had no means to support themselves and their child. Who had been abandoned by the father. Who had families who could, or would, not accept the social stigma of an illegitimate child.

Some baby farmers were good people who did exactly what they promised. But others were not. They made money from taking in desperate women and then taking away, and killing, their new-born children.

It was disturbing to read.

I just wish that story had been expanded, maybe to take in other women’s stories, and the contemporary story cut back.

I didn’t need to know quite so much about Annie’s and Mollie’s lives. It was a distraction.

I didn’t need the ghost story, which never quite took off.

And I didn’t need the contrived ending that brought all of the strands of the story together.

That there were links between different occupants of the house, that the history of one house was explored was wonderful.

But there was too much going on, and a little more contrivance than I was prepared to accept.

This is still a very readable, very well researched novel.

But I can’t help feeling that there was the potential for so much more in the material.

6 responses

  1. I think I enjoyed this one more than you did. I didn’t have a problem with the contemporary storyline, which is unusual for me as I normally tend to prefer the historical sections. The ‘ghost story’ aspect was disappointing though, and I agree that the ending was too contrived.

  2. This is one of the books I got for Christmas and I was a bit perturbed by the ghostly element, but I think from your review that I will enjoy the historical element.

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