‘The Doll Factory’ by Elizabeth MacNeal

Fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 384 pages; 2019.

Art, freedom and obsession collide in Elizabeth MacNeal’s The Doll Factory. This debut novel marries historical fiction with elements of the psychological thriller to create a proper page-turner. I practically devoured this book on a seven-hour train journey (from Kalgoorlie to Perth) last weekend and have been thinking about it ever since.

It’s set in London during the Great Exhibition and the era of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a loose association of English painters who rebelled against the art standards of the day (read more about them here), and focuses on a young woman called Iris Whittle who is drawn into their circle, first as an artist’s model, but then as a burgeoning painter in her own right.

Along the way, she attracts the unwanted attention of a taxidermist, Silas Reed, who is constantly in pursuit of the weird and wonderful. Silas becomes obsessed with Iris and her deformity — a collarbone that is twisted out of shape so that she has a slight stoop to her left side — and makes plans to befriend her, whether she likes it or not.

What results is a fast-paced story in which Iris, oblivious to Silas’s increasingly dangerous obsession with her, falls prey to his dark, manipulative ways…

Painterly ambition

When we first meet independently minded Iris she is working (and living) in a doll factory (hence the book’s title) alongside her twin sister Rose, painting faces onto dozens of porcelain dolls every day.

The long 12-hour shifts are monotonous and dull. Iris dreams of doing something more interesting with her life. She has a talent for painting and longs to pursue this, but, of course, conventions of the day generally restrict women from leading lives that are anything other than domestic.

A chance encounter with a member of the PRB, attracted to her flame-red hair and quiet beauty, offers her a means of escape. In exchange for becoming an artist’s model, she will be given art lessons to explore her talent.

But what seems like a no-brainer is fraught with pitfalls, for to do so she will earn the wrath of society (to be an artist’s model at the time was akin to being a whore) and her family will disown her.

There are further complications because Iris has no idea that a man she accidentally bumped into at Hyde Park a few weeks earlier has developed a “thing” for her. Silas Reed’s quiet pursuit of her goes relatively unnoticed. She ignores his later invite to visit his shop (“Silas Reed’s Shop of Curiosities Antique and New”) and is unaware that the Great Exhibition ticket that arrives in the post is an anonymous gift from him.

Being oblivious to these “signs” only puts Iris in more danger for she is unable to take steps to protect herself — with far-reaching consequences.

Historical fiction

There are echoes of John Fowles’ The Collector here (a book I read so long ago that my memory of it is quite vague), but for all its creepiness and, at times, morbid atmosphere, this isn’t a psychological thriller as such.

The Doll Factory is primarily a well researched historical novel, incredibly evocative and rich in detail, which brings the sights and smells of 1850s London to life on the page.

It’s very much a novel about art and pursuing dreams and having the freedom to live life as you want to live it, something that wasn’t typically open to women in the 19th century. It also explores what it was like to be a woman at the time, to constantly be in the male gaze, to modify your behaviour to keep men happy, to do things that would not call your morality into question.

It’s one of those well-crafted, entertaining novels ideal for those times when you are simply looking for something quick and absorbing to read, but because it is also underpinned by important issues and rooted in historical fact, it’s got enough meat on the bones to make it chewy, too.

11 thoughts on “‘The Doll Factory’ by Elizabeth MacNeal

  1. I have read and enjoyed this book to, less than a year ago. I was surprised at how little I’d remembered as I read your review, and while I agree with your conclusions, it looks as though for me, it was a book I enjoyed in the moment, without its being a game-changer.

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    • I can understand how that might be the case; I’m not sure how long this book will stay with me. I’m so behind in my reviews as I have been busy and not penned a review in more than a fortnight but wanted to write about this one while it was still fresh in my mind.

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    • Ah, I forget you’re not on Instagram and won’t have seen all my pics. We did visit the Two-Up School but it only operates on a Sunday. We also visited the super pit gold mine, a couple of mining museums and all the pubs!)

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  2. I’ve probably already said I’m not an Historical Fiction fan. But I understand why these subversive stories are told. I wonder how often women were able to break out of the mould in this way – it reminds me a little bit of Trilby, but then she stayed a model, from memory.
    In Kal there’s a pit tower at the top of the main street which used to be open to the public and from which you could see into my auntie’s back yard, including the lav. Hope you got to stay in one of the lovely federation hotels.

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    • Isn’t all modern fiction historical fiction? 🤔

      I presume that tower is the one now at the Museum of the Goldfields at the top of Hannan street. The museum is open but the tower isn’t. We got a pretty good view of the super pit from the viewing platform inside the complex (only accessible by booking a tour) and the platform outside a 5 minute drive out of town. (We hired a car for a day to see some of the sights not accessible on foot.)

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