The Painter’s Apprentice, sequel to The Apothecary’s Daughter, is set about twenty years after the Great Fire and follows the fortunes of Beth Ambrose, the eldest daughter of Susannah and William. At the end of the previous book, Susannah and William were making plans to turn Merryfields into a place where those suffering from mental health issues could find a measure of peace. Merryfields has had many residents over the years, however there has been a decline in the number of paying guests and the Ambrose family are struggling with financial problems.
One such resident, Johannes, a Dutch painter who lost his family in traumatic circumstances, has taken Beth under his wing and is nurturing her talent, however he cannot take her on as an official apprentice due to her gender. Beth’s situation, mirroring that of her mother in the previous novel, leads her to making a vow never to marry so she can realise her full potential as an artist instead of sacrificing her talent to become a full time wife and mother. Most of the book is subsequently taken up with Beth struggling to keep her vow as she soon finds herself falling in love with her cousin, Noah, who has arrived from Virginia to study architecture with Sir Christopher Wren. I have to admit I struggled with this premise because Beth grew up in a household where her father valued the contributions of her mother and made sure she could practice being an apothecary as well as being a wife. Why would Beth think she could not have the same thing? She never once discusses her options with Noah, merely assuming that it would not be possible and this is pretty weak considering Noah’s chosen career handily matches her own. I soon grew tired of Beth’s endless complaints that Noah was ignoring her while she wasn’t exactly giving him much encouragement to begin with.
Many of the characters from the first book appear but they are relegated to minor guest parts as the story focuses on Beth and her blossoming career. Unfortunately, Susannah’s irritating stepmother, Arabella, has a bigger role in this book as Beth and her sister, Cecily, eventually live with her for a time. Arabella is now a titled lady courtesy of her fourth husband and has had to convert to Catholicism to attend James’s court so her opinions leave you with no doubt which side of the fence she is sitting on.
The arrival of Noah throws Beth’s family life into chaos and she initially resents his interference because he is carrying an invitation from his father for one of Beth’s brothers to travel to Virginia to become his heir as Noah’s interest lies elsewhere. Beth knows her brother Kit has no interest in Merryfields and will jump at the chance to go to Virginia, and that fills her with dread because she is the closest to him and she may never see him again.
In my review of The Apothecary’s Daughter, I remarked on how Betts has a habit of signposting plots long before they happen and this is very evident in the sequel when certain characters are introduced. This is no more evident than with the introduction of Dr. Latymer who suddenly appears when the girls are with Arabella and expresses an immediate interest in the work at Merryfields; you just know William has found his heir and Latymer will end up marrying Cecily when she gets over her current infatuation.
The political aspects of this sequel are centred around the Glorious Revolution with James II determined to return the country to the True Faith while awaiting the birth of his son, James Francis Edward, known to history as the Old Pretender. Tensions between the Catholic and Protestant faiths are high but we really don’t see much of it firsthand as it is told by characters who pop in and out of Beth’s life as she catalogues plants and flowers at Fulham Palace at the behest of Henry Hampton. The book also ends just before William of Orange arrives in Britain to seize the throne from his father-in-law and rules alongside his wife, Mary.
Beth does become friends with James’s other daughter, Anne, who comes to Merryfields to recover from one of her numerous miscarriages. Anne’s true identity is initially kept a secret from Beth but readers familiar with their royal history will have no trouble working out who she is and of course her arrival is timely enough to save Merryfields from financial ruin. Anne’s appearances merely serve to give the reader an update on the political situation and to forecast the inevitable conclusion, and the inference in the blurb that Beth is directly involved in changing the course of history is entirely misleading as she barely participates.
I don’t particularly find this period of history interesting so I’m not sure if this has coloured my opinion because I really started to get bored long before the conclusion. The characters are also weaker than in the previous book which makes for a far less interesting reading experience.