The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

Victorian London, 1850. The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood’s radical, rebellious ideas. Fascination with skulls, abnormalities, and freaks. The awakening of eroticism in a prude society. Two red-haired twins with skin as white as milk and eyes as green as grass ‒ although occasionally grey like overcast skies ‒ one marred by smallpox scars, the other beautiful but with a deformed collarbone. And a taxidermist with a terrifying collection of stuffed mice…

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is a compelling novel about London whores, pickpockets, and lunatics, but also about artists and their muses at the exciting times of the Great Exhibition 1851. Silas meets Iris at the Crystal Palace construction site in Hyde Park and can’t get her out of his head. He imagines the unsuspecting girl as the crownpiece of his collection because of her deformed collarbone. While stuffing puppies and trapping butterflies between two glass panes, he schemes how to lure her into his warped workshop.

Iris, the main character, is modeled after Elizabeth Siddall. However, while most authors depict beautiful, delicate Lizzie Siddall as a needy, weak, irritating girl, Iris is strong, brave, decisive, ahead of her time. Macneal masterfully paints the portrait of her life: family surroundings, cruel working conditions in Victorian London, her desire to paint, the gloomy future that awaited most working-class girls in those time, the hypocrisy that made women blush even at the mention of table legs while the royals engaged in an everybody-sleeps-with-everybody lifestyle… Iris is on the verge of losing it, suffocating, and craving freedom while trapped in her decent life, which should make her happy: painting dolls sixteen or more hours a day for Mrs. Solter, who humiliates her and her sister Rose, sharing a bed and chamber pot with Rose ‒ who is cold and mean to her, handing over her earnings to her parents, waiting to get married and start popping one child a year, drudging until her artistic hands become too swollen to hold a brush…

Salvation comes in an unexpected form: a Pre-Raphaelite painter wants her to be his model, which was almost a synonym for prostitute in that holier-than-thou society. Iris is aware of the consequences of accepting: no honorable shopkeeper will employ her ever again, her parents and sister will kick her out of their wretched lives, and her reputation will be ruined forever. However, the painter offers her something that the artist in her can’t refuse: daily painting lessons as well as freedom, something unthinkable for most women in those times. While dreaming about her painting standing in the Royal Academy, Iris has no idea how the symbolism of the painting she will pose for, The Imprisonment of Guigemar’s Queen, will affect her life.

Elizabeth Macneal didn’t leave anything out: the crazy hypocrisy with unrealistic, harsh limitations for the middle and working-class, while the high society fulfilled all their whims ‒ remember Prince Albert’s love chair and the pubic wigs? ‒ and the poor were viewed as people with no morals whatsoever. Child prostitution and child labor were more perverse than anything the royals could dream of doing under the sheets. The author mentions such things only fleetingly, sparsely, mater-of-factly, and that makes them over more powerful somehow. Extreme ugliness and beauty, opulence and poverty, feasts and starving, glow and filth… all the stark contrasts that make Victorian London so captivating are captured in this book. The love story is sweet, isn’t sappy, and doesn’t take over the story or slow down the pace. The painters, their rule-breaking, dedication to art, and youthful frolicking are fresh and add an intriguing spice to the mix. Silas’s madness and deft returning to his past to reveal its roots is cleverly executed and reminds of fog threatening to swallow everything. In short, a captivating book about the path toward the most important thing in life: freedom.

Genre: Historical, Fiction, Mystery, Thriller

Awards: HWA Debut Crown Nominee for Longlist (2020)

Describe this book with one word: Fascinating

The perfect beverage to sip while reading this book: Port

This book’s best musical buddy: Brompton Oratory ‒ Nick Cave

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