I love getting lost in a good book and I am delighted to share with you my first book review of 2019, The Doll Factory, the debut novel by Elizabeth Macneal. It’s an intoxicating story of art, obsession and possession set against a backdrop of The Great Exhibition in London. I thought the cover was very appealing, featuring a bell jar full of objects which appear in the novel – a butterfly, an iris, a girl, mouse, peacock feather – all trapped inside.
The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal
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 . . .
I love a historical novel, especially one set in London, and I’ve also been intrigued by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for a long time. The Pre-Raphaelite’s were a group of English painters, poets, and art critics, founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The main character in The Doll Factory is Iris, who works in a shop on Regent Street with her twin sister, making dolls. She is asked to model for Louis Frost, member of the PRB and gets drawn into a whole new world. The character of Iris is inspired by Lizzie Siddal, muse and later wife of Dante Rossetti.
I really enjoyed reading The Doll Factory. I loved the character of Iris, the artist Louis and street urchin Albie. The book artfully describes the characters, their backstories and life in London. I didn’t like the character of Silas but you are not meant to. I actually disliked reading the parts of the book he featured in, especially towards the climax of the story, but this means that the author has a brilliant way with words in creating such a terrible antagonist.
I don’t want to ruin the story because this is an excellent gothic novel which deserves to be successful. As I approached the end of the novel I began to worry about how it would end. Thankfully, after a very late night reading, I finished the novel and everything was resolved. I’m excited to see what the author writes next!
If you like the sound of The Doll Factory than you may be interested in the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition which will be on between 17th October and 26th January 2020 at the National Portrait Gallery. It will explore the overlooked contribution of twelve women to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, including Evelyn de Morgan, Effie Millais(nee Gray), Elizabeth Siddal and Joanna Wells (nee Boyce), an artist whose work has been largely omitted from the history of the movement.
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 by Elizabeth Macneal will be published in the UK by Picador on 2nd May 2019, and by Simon and Schuster in the US on 3rd September 2019. It is currently available to pre-order via Amazon. It won the Caledonia Novel Award 2018, and excitingly, film and TV rights have been sold to Buccaneer Media.