Book review: The Ghost of Lily Painter by Caitlin Davies

The first time Annie Sweet saw the charming two-storey house at 43 Stanley Road, it spoke to her...

By Pam Norfolk
Thursday, 21st July 2011, 7:00 am

Neat, modest and as perfectly formed as a child’s drawing, it was the kind of house that made you want to ‘shake the hand of the person who designed it.’

But Annie’s dream home harbours a dark secret ... and a ghost who will not rest until a 100-year-old wrong has been righted.

Caitlin Davies’ thoughtful and atmospheric novel lifts the lid on the scandal of Edwardian London’s ‘baby farmers,’ women who lured young unmarried mothers into their ‘lying-in’ homes with the promise of a better life for their babies through adoption.

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Based in part on the real-life case of two midwives hung for murdering a baby in their care, Davies weaves together fact and fiction, present and past, history and mystery into a moving tale of love, loss, betrayal and redemption.

The Ghost of Lily Painter was inspired by Davies’ mission to unearth the history of her own London home using information from the 1901 census and a desire to understand the everyday lives of Edwardian women.

The house in Holloway proves to be everything Annie wanted except for an attic-like bedroom which feels forever cold and has a distinctly unloved air.

With architect husband Ben becoming more distant and her young daughter Molly wrapped up in her friends and new school, Annie is left alone to mull over the past.

Soon she becomes consumed by the house and everyone who has lived there before her, especially a young chorus girl called Lily Painter, a rising star of the music hall whose sparkling performances were the talk of the town.

Lily’s family lodged with Inspector William George who in 1901 resolved to write a few lines each day in a journal bought for him by his wife Fanny.

He looks on it as an opportunity to note down observations on his police work in London which seems to increasingly involve being a ‘social inspector’ as well as a police inspector.

When he receives an anonymous letter telling him of sinister events at a house in East Finchley where six babies were seen to enter in a single month and soon after three were never seen again, it is just the start of a murderous trail...

Davies paints a vivid and resonant picture of the raw excitement of the music halls and the desperation of unwanted pregnancy as well as the emotional problems that beset women of any era.

From the death of Queen Victoria, through a doomed Second World War love affair and into the present, Davies’ highly descriptive novel breathes life into London’s rich history.

As the daughter of writers Margaret Forster and Hunter Davies, this author has a hard act to follow but The Ghost of Lily Painter proves to be a worthy addition to her rich literary heritage.

(Hutchinson, paperback, £12.99)