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’ve had The Doll Factory on my TBR since it was released last year and, truth be told, I’ve been a little nervous about reading it. As a fan of historical fiction, this was one of my most anticipated books of 2019 and it ticked all my boxes – Victorian setting, female-focused, hints of the Gothic, blending of real-life figures and imagined persons. Plus, it featured a mischievous wombat – one of my very favourite animals and a creature very ill-appreciated in my native UK.
What eventually led me to get over my nerves and actually pick the book up was a buddy read with some of the wonderful ladies who make up the blogging gang of The Write Reads. Over the course of October, we have taken our time to read and discuss a section of The Doll Factory each week. And despite those insightful and interesting discussions (and occasional rants), I STILL have feeling about this book. Many, many feelings.
The Doll Factory is the story of Iris, a young woman living a life of respectable but uninspired drudgery. Working alongside her embittered sister Rose in the dreariness of Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium, Iris dreams of being an artist. When a chance encounter with artist Louis Frost – a member of the notorious Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – leads to an offer of both work and painting lessons, Iris is drawn into an expansive and expressive world of rebellion, love, rivalry, and secrets. Unfortunately for Iris her entry into this world has bought her into contact with Silas, a strange and lonely man whose occupation as a taxidermist hides far more sinister proclivities. And as Iris learns to negotiate the freedoms of her new world, Silas is quietly planning a way to constrain it.
Although I’ve done my best, any overview really cannot express how richly layered the world of this novel is. One of the most impressive things about the book for me was the sheer density of the author’s depiction of Victorian London, and of the lives these characters led within it. I could see the decedent clutter of Louis’s rooms, small the chemical acidity of Silas’s grim basement, and hear the cries of the women in the dank rookery tenement inhabited by Albie, the street urchin whose life intersects with that of both Iris and Silas. To have created a world so vividly moving is quite a feat.
The characters too, feel like living and breathing people in all the best and worst ways. Iris makes for an interesting protagonist. Having been born with a misshapen clavicle (the result of a botched forceps birth), she is unused to being looked at or admired and it was fascinating to see how her idea about herself – her own beauty and capabilities – expanded and grew over the course of the novel. I was found her relationship with her sister Rose to be well-realised – the two had been close as children but, following an unfortunate illness, Rose has grown resentful of Iris and they seem to have little common ground at the start of the novel. Seeing these two characters find their way back to each other, and negotiate a more equal relationship, was a high point of the book for me.
Even more incidental characters felt as if they could walk off the page – I challenge anyone not to want to instantly adopt the sweet-natured Albie – and the way in which real people, such as the artists Millais and Rossetti, and the art critic John Ruskin, are integrated into the story is masterfully done. I genuinely had to Google to check there wasn’t a Pre-Raphaelite artist called Louis Frost!
You can also tell that the author is an artist herself (she makes the most marvellous pottery, available on her website in limited numbers) because the way that she talks about art and creativity in the novel is wonderful – you really do begin to see the world through the eyes of an artist and to appreciate the passion and commitment that has gone into every brushstroke.
Unfortunately, the plot didn’t quite live up to the characterisation for me. There is a LOT going on in this book and I felt, at times, as if the plot was foundering under the weight of all the moving parts at play. In addition to Iris’s ‘relationship’ with Silas (if you can call it that), there are plot strands focusing on Iris’ development as an artist, the acceptance of the PRB by The Royal Academy, Silas’ exhibit for The Great Exhibition, Albie’s quest to get a new set of teeth, Louis’ mysterious past, Iris’ relationship with her sister, and Silas’ past misdeeds. And that’s not everything!
Whilst none of these strands were done badly, some of them felt extraneous – I failed to see why Iris’ relationship with her parents (mentioned once) was relevant, for example. It was the same with the opening – I felt as if Mrs Salter and the Doll Emporium would, somehow, be relevant to the plot but, once Iris has left to go and work for Louis, the place is barely mentioned again and Mrs Salter takes no further part in the action. It’s almost as if the author had such fun creating these characters and this world that she couldn’t bear to part with any of them – even if it later became clear that they didn’t really do much in the novel.
My other major issue with this book was with Silas. I don’t mind reading an unpleasant character but I do like to feel that there is some motivation behind their unpleasantness. Silas is most definitely one of the most unpleasant characters I’ve read on the page – there were times when inhabiting his twisted headspace made me so deeply uncomfortable I had to put the book down – but I ended up feeling as if he was predictably evil, with little to no indication as to why he does the things he does. There are some hints – that he had a terrible childhood, that he has been bullied all his life – but then, at the last minute, it’s also implied that he possibly suffers from some sort of illness that results in blackouts and uncontrollable fits of anger that seems to undermine this narrative of suffering and victimhood. Silas is, in many respects, incredibly well realised – he’s a truly creepy and memorable character – but, in others, felt rather one-dimensional. As with so many things about this book, I ended up with very mixed feelings about him.
As a result of both the weighty plot and the characterisation of Silas, I found the ending of The Doll Factory really quite disappointing. I won’t give any spoilers here – and I will say that the journey to get to the end is very enjoyable, despite the misgivings I’ve mentioned here – but I just felt as if the ending came at a rush, and with little resolution for many of the characters. Having created such an immensely creepy villain in Silas, I felt somewhat cheated out of a resolution for him at the end. And don’t even get me started on Albie’s plot strand – I’m still not quite over that. And I couldn’t help feeling as if I’d read sections of the ending before – there are certainly moments that reminded me quite a lot of John Fowles’ novel The Collector.
As I hope you can tell, this book left me with really mixed feelings. A bit of me REALLY loves this book. It’s rich and vibrant and provides one of the best depictions of Victorian London – complete with all its messy, complicated glory – that I’ve read. And the characters are so real and vivid and the art is so beautifully described and depicted. I desperately wanted to love it unconditionally as there really is so much that I did enjoy and admire about it.
BUT (sadly, there is a but), for me the book just didn’t quite fulfil its promise in other ways. The ending left me with quite a bitter taste, and there were just too many elements that didn’t quite come together in a way that left me feeling wholly satisfied when I turned the final page.
I’d definitely read whatever Elizabeth Macneal writes next – I think a lot of the issues I had with the book are what I would term ‘first novel problems’. And I would certainly recommend picking it up if you enjoy historical fiction or are looking for a book club read – it provoked many lively and interesting discussions amongst our reading group! Also, did I mention that it features a wombat? Immediate extra star right there.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for a honest and unbiased review. I should also note I purchased a hard copy of the book so my review is based on the finished hardback edition.
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