It is not difficult to see why The Doll Factory attracted such pre-publication excitement. There is its subject matter for a start. The Pre-Raphaelites remain one of the most distinctive and popular groups of artists in the world, famed not just for their striking paintings but for the intrigues and romances of the “Brotherhood”, their general notoriety, and their disregard for the conventional mores of 19th century Victorian England.
Then there is the heroine, Iris, a painter of doll’s faces, condemned it seems forever to the drudgery of repeat work in a cold and unpleasant environment overseen by a laudanum-crazed mistress whose favourite method of disciplining her employees is a sharp pinch to the inside of their elbows.
But Iris has ambitions and a desire to escape, those very contemporary aspirations, and the will-power to realise her dreams. In the 21st century, we all love a feminist fighter.
Add in a villain of whom Charles Dickens would have been proud and a petty criminal with a heart of gold and an ambition to “earn” himself a set of false teeth, and the stage is set for drama, intrigue and, inevitably, a tortured love affair.
Author Elizabeth Macneal, it would seem, has hit on the perfect formula for her first novel.
Fourteen publishers clearly thought so, locked in a battle for the publication rights that resulted in a six-figure advance for Macneal. With publishing deals in 29 countries and television rights already agreed, The Doll Factory is set to become the next blockbuster in the tradition of The Miniaturist (2014) by Jessie Burton and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (2016).
Macneal herself is a product of an Oxford literature degree and the famous University of East Anglia MA Creative Writing course whose alumni include, among others, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. The Doll Factory is prefaced with acclaim and recommendations from the great and the good of the writing and publishing world who have rallied to its cause.
If I seem a little ungracious here, it is not because The Doll Factory is a bad novel, it isn’t, it’s because the super-hyped blockbuster seems to absorb all the money and publicity of the publishing world at the expense of many fine and worthy writers who attract much less, and equally deserved, attention. It was not always thus!
Macneal’s depiction of London in the 1850s is one of the book’s solid strengths. The sprawling city is on the brink of the Great Exhibition and the construction of Crystal Palace, a building of glittering glass that will showcase the advancements of the Industrial Revolution and the skills of its inventors and craftsmen. But it is also a teeming, stinking, filthy metropolis in which the poor are degraded and downtrodden, disease is rife and working conditions are appalling. Progress comes at a cost borne on the backs of the poor.
When we meet Iris, she is in what is effectively a small sweatshop, painting the faces of dolls alongside her pockmarked twin sister Rose. Her disfigurement from smallpox has led Rose to abandon all hopes of marriage and she is resigned to a life of drudgery.
Iris, in contrast, is determined to escape and longs to be able to paint seriously, sacrificing her sleep to do so late into the night while the household slumbers. When her appearance, and particularly her famed red hair, attracts the attention of Pre-Raphaelite painter Louis Frost (based on artist Gabriel Dante Rossetti, or at least the nicer bits of him) she agrees to model for him only if he will teach her to paint. He agrees, and with much heartache Iris leaves her sister in the doll factory and takes lodgings paid for by Frost.
Again, Macneal handles this well. To give up steady employment, however brain-numbing it might be, for such perilous work horrifies both Iris’s sister and her parents. As does the moral dimension – artists and models, and the Pre-Raphaelites in particular, are seen as anything but “respectable”. Iris will be ruined and will bring disgrace on them all. She is exiled and her heart is broken by the intransigence of Rose.
Unfortunately for her, Frost is not the only man attracted to Iris. Silas Reed has a shop of “Curiosities Antique and New”. Among other things he is a skilled taxidermist with ambitions to have his work exhibited in the Crystal Palace. He finds a suitable subject when Albie, a street urchin whose beloved sister has resorted to cheap prostitution to survive, brings him two conjoined puppies. These will be his masterpiece, the stuffed pelts and the flayed skeletons exhibited side-by-side in a glass case with his name inscribed beneath.
Silas is obsessive, deluded and dangerous. Albie recognises this and tries to warn both Iris and Frost but they take insufficient notice.
Macneal has set things up nicely for an exciting denouement, even if it does owe too much to John Fowles’ The Collector (1963).
The Doll Factory is a good read. Its period feel and sense of place are strong, its main characters memorable and the writing is in many places excellent. But for all that, I finished it with a slight feeling of disappointment. I wanted more depth, more justification for that huge advance and the publicity furore surrounding it.
The Doll Factory
Author: Elizabeth Macneal
Publisher: Picador, historical fiction