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Book Review: The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

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The Doll Factory, Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel, thoroughly deserves its spot as a Sunday Times bestseller.

Set in London during the early 1850s, at the unveiling of Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition, Macneal weaves a tale of intrigue, romance and gothic curiosity.

Image courtesy of Waterstones

The novel follows Iris, a 21-year-old aspiring artist, who is willful and enigmatic as she navigates London’s flamboyant art scene. The rise of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood forms the artistic backdrop of the novel, with cameos from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and Lizzie Siddal.

Macneal weaves a beautiful, empowering and well-crafted tale across the streets of Victorian London, with almost Joycean attention to the city’s intricate details. From the well-endowed town-houses of the gentry to the grim and grotty alleyways of 19th Century slums, no detail is left to the imagination.

The novel, like the streets which it inhabits, is full of intrigue. The plot focuses on two aspects of Iris’s newfound independence: her introduction to Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost and a random, yet lasting, encounter with Silas Reed, an eerie and obscure taxidermist and owner of his ‘own museum of curiosities’.

Despite the evident differences and divergence between each avenue of the novel’s riveting plot, they are mutually dependent upon one another. Through the endearing, thoughtful and tragic figure of Alby, a young boy longing for a complete set of teeth, Macneal ties together the various strands of the plot. A key character to the plot’s trajectory, Alby embodies a sense of hope and innocence, whilst drawing attention to the realities of the grim existence of so many Victorian Londoners. Although his relationship with the novel’s protagonist could perhaps have required a little more development, their mutual protection and endearment of one another was a particular highlight.

Iris, the aforementioned protagonist of the novel, is a well-rounded, realistic and three-dimensional heroine. Macneal has put at the helm of her debut a character to whom it was possible to relate: her artistic talent requires work, her relationships aren’t perfect and her beauty is unconventional. Despite the twists and turns of the plot, at no point did Iris morph into the super-human, effortlessly perfect female protagonist so frequently employed in literature. Her agency is her own and her narrative trajectory, although featuring romance, is not tied to a male love interest. She remains, throughout the novel, refreshingly grounded and is an ideal heroine for a narrative that takes as its focal point the androcentric Victorian art scene.

The relationship between Iris and her twin sister, Rose, also deserves ample attention. Their difficult, yet ultimately loving, sisterhood forms a greater point of focus than the novel’s romantic aspects, allowing for a deeper exploration of sororal bonds. It would perhaps have been easier to paint Rose as a secondary antagonist in the novel, wholly resentful of Iris’s success and an obstacle to her ultimate growth, yet Macneal’s development of their relationship is full of nuance. As with Iris herself, the portrayal of the relationship between sisters is realistic and relatable, allowing the novel instead to focus on the importance of female relationships.

The Doll Factory is historical fiction for the modern age. With a protagonist who pushes against the constraints of her situation, without being rendered superficial and a thoroughly engaging plot, Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel is one definitely to read and keep reading.

The book can be purchased from Waterstones here.




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