Saturday 23 November 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Doll Factory, Elizabeth Macneal (2019)

My Neo-Victorian Voices series is dedicated to books written in the twenty-first century, but set in the nineteenth. Last time, I reviewed Marley, Jon Clinch’s 2019 novel about Scrooge’s business partner from Charles Dickens’s 1843 A Christmas Carol. This time I’m writing about Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel, The Doll Factory, which is set in 1850s London.

The Doll Factory (2019)
The Doll Factory is the story of Iris, who spends her days painting dolls for a laudanum-addicted shop owner, and working alongside her disfigured twin sister. Her life changes forever after meeting two men—Louis Frost, fictional member of the real-life group of artists known as the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), and Silas, a lonely taxidermist and curator of curiosities. Iris has artistic aspirations of her own and so agrees to model for Louis, despite her parents’ and sister’s opposition and concern for her virtue. Meanwhile, Silas grows increasingly obsessed with her, fantasising about adding her to his morbid collection.

The novel is dark and certainly not for the squeamish, but there are moments of levity too. The PRB’s dinner and pub conversation is well wrought and believable, and their quirks add colour and interest. Macneal includes anecdotes both real and apocryphal about William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti et al., from imperilling their models by posing them in bathtubs to killing an unfortunate wombat that ate a box of their cigars.

I also found a secondary point of view character, Albie, particularly compelling. He’s a single-toothed street urchin who brings Silas dead animals and dreams of one day earning enough money to buy a set of fake gnashers (that or saving his sister from prostitution). The conclusion to his story was one of the best paragraphs of a beautifully written book.

Elizabeth Macneal (1988- )
But the heart of the novel is how well Macneal paints Silas, with his delusions, fixations and obsessions. If you enjoy getting into the heads of creepy and amoral characters, this novel is a wonderful exercise in understanding a disturbed mind. If you’d prefer to stick with the heroes, this won’t be for you. In this regard, the novel reminded me of Catherine Chidgey’s 2005 The Transformation, which I also reviewed for this series and very much enjoyed. The denouement of The Doll Factory, which brings Silas and Iris together, keeps you guessing and is hard to put down. Warning: you might miss your subway stop.

There’s just enough time and space dedicated to the technicalities of painting for readers with a particular interest in the art. And the Great Exhibition provides a wonderful historical backdrop to the vents of the novel. If I had to quibble, I’d say the love story isn’t as successful as the rest of the book, but this may be a question of personal taste. No spoilers here, but I was longing to see Iris choose for herself vs. being chosen and yearned for an even greater contrast between Louis and Silas’s desire to own her, especially towards the end. Overall, The Doll Factory is more than worthy of the attention it’s received. If you love the Gothic and Victoriana that’s more macabre than Christmassy, this one’s for you!

Do you have recommendations for which novel I should review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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