Book Review: The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

The Doll Factory…

About the Book:

The Doll Factory, the debut novel by Elizabeth Macneal, is an intoxicating story of art, obsession and possession.

London. 1850. The Great Exhibition is being erected in Hyde Park and among the crowd watching the spectacle two people meet. For Iris, an aspiring artist, it is the encounter of a moment – forgotten seconds later, but for Silas, a collector entranced by the strange and beautiful, that meeting marks a new beginning.

When Iris is asked to model for pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her to paint. Suddenly her world begins to expand, to become a place of art and love.

But Silas has only thought of one thing since their meeting, and his obsession is darkening.


My Thoughts:

The Doll Factory is exactly my kind of novel. Set in Victorian London, it’s a real mish-mash in terms of genre: Penny Dreadful meets Dickens with a dash of Keats – I was swooning from the first page to the last, such a treat this novel was for me. Victorian London is depicted in all its gruesome grimy glory, and against this backdrop we meet Iris, an apprentice doll maker and aspiring artist, stifled by her lot in life.

‘She will never escape. She will never be free. She is destined to eke out this pitiful life, to suffer the slaps and insults of Mrs Salter, to endure her sister’s jealousy, until, at last, some scrawny boy fattens her with child after child, and she spends her days winching laundry through a mangle, swilling rotten offal into Sunday pies, all while tending to infants mewling with scarlatina and influenza and goodness knows what else, until she contracts it too…’

We also meet her twin sister Rose, bitter and pox scarred, her hopes and dreams in tatters, spitefully jealous, a misunderstanding widening the rift between her and Iris day by day. And Albie, a little street urchin, living in a brothel with his sister, seeing and hearing all, yet often dismissed as insignificant, and always underestimated. Then there’s Louis, an artist with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who offers Iris a position as his model, thus changing her life forever. And lastly, there is Silas, a taxidermist and collector of strange specimens, himself the strangest of all. When he meets Iris in the briefest of encounters, he is immediately drawn to her on account of her twisted collarbone, caused from a breakage during birth. To Silas, she is the most beautiful oddity of all, and he rapidly becomes obsessed with her, his delusions encroaching upon his reality in the most alarming way.

‘She is polite. She is unfailingly polite, and now he knows that she barely remembers him, it occurs to him that she may not want to come at all, that she may just agree to spare his feelings. And what then? A thought passes across his brain, as clear as glass. Well, then, the voice says, you must kill her. He almost laughs at himself – how ludicrous of him.’

When Iris accepts the position as a model, it is under the condition that Louis also tutor her in art. She has some talent, both as a model and an artist, and before too long, Louis and Iris are entwined in both a professional and romantic liaison. Theirs is the type of love story I enjoy the most, devoid of romantic clap trap but infused instead with passion and devotion. They are from different worlds, but their connection through art transcends these barriers.

‘She pulls her shawl about her, readying herself to leave, but he risks a slight glance at her, and she cannot stop herself. She cannot let him go – she cannot. It feels, in that moment, that she must have all of him or nothing at all, and she cannot bear to lose him and all that she associates with him: his hand over hers, guiding her pencil across the page. A slash of bright red on a canvas. A painted strawberry, perfectly ripe, the gleam of its catchpoint.’

As Iris’s fortunes improve, she continues to look out for Albie and doesn’t give up on repairing her relationship with her sister, Rose. Iris is a good person: kind and generous, beautiful, but flawed enough to keep her grounded. I really liked her, which made it all the more dreadful to witness Silas’s growing obsession and increasingly delusional behaviour. His actions were really frightening. He met Iris once, and then a second time when he put himself into her path, but from here, he fabricated an entire relationship between them, plotted out a future. His obsession was more than sinister, it was sickeningly disturbing and as the novel progresses, his mind unravels further, and we become privy to other acts of depravity by Silas against other people he has become obsessed with over the course of his life. He is one of the most creepy characters I have read in a long time.

‘How all her life she has been careful not to encourage men, but not to slight them either, always a little fearful of them. She is seen as an object to be gazed at or touched at leisure: an arm around her waist is nothing more than friendly, a whisper in her ear and a forced kiss on the cheek is flattering, something for which she should be grateful. She should appreciate the attentions of men more, but she should resist them too, subtly, in a way both to encourage and discourage, so as not to lead to doubts of her purity and goodness but not to make men feel snubbed – she is tired, her limbs heavy.’

As far as debuts go, this is top shelf historical fiction, and if I hadn’t read it in the author’s bio, I’d never have picked this as a first novel. The storytelling is sublime, you’re just wrapped up in this world with the most realistic characters, the setting infused with so much atmosphere it sets all of your senses tingling. I was filled with this mounting dread as the novel progressed of the likes I haven’t felt since watching the television series, Penny Dreadful. This novel is so good; I dare you to step into the world of The Doll Factory. You can thank me after.

☕☕☕☕☕


Thanks is extended to Pan Macmillan Australia for providing me with a copy of The Doll Factory for review.


About the Author:

Elizabeth Macneal was born in Scotland and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University, before working in the City for several years. In 2017, she completed the Creative Writing MA at UEA where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship. The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, won the Caledonia Novel Award 2018.


The Doll Factory
Published byPan Macmillan Australia (Picador)
Released on 23rd April 2019

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