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Book Review: ‘The Doll Factory’ By Elizabeth Macneal

This much-anticipated debut novel weaves a dark gothic tale that reminds us women are not dolls for men to look at or possess

Photo: Pan Macmillan

Step into the world of 1850s London, where poverty and ostentatious affluence, prostitution and idealistic art, are on the rise alongside each other. Iris Whittle, the protagonist of The Doll Factory, dreams of breaking out from the underbelly of Victorian society by becoming an painter, but her entrance into the art scene is just the start of her struggle for real freedom. First, she needs to be someone else’s art.

Becoming a model for emerging artist Louis Frost’s painting is Iris’s ticket out of the doll shop, where she works in poor conditions doing repetitive tasks. But at a time when being a painter’s model is synonymous with being his mistress, Iris will not let her reputation be bought so easily. She gives Louis a condition: she will sit for his painting, only if he teaches her how to paint. From the start of the novel, we get to know Iris as an intelligent and talented woman with her own ambitions. Unlike her parents and her twin sister Rose, who resigns herself to an unhappy and lowly life, Iris does not subscribe to the conventions that women cannot make it big in their own right. However, is the rest of Victorian society ready to change yet?

We get a very foreboding sense about the answer to that question from the start, as the first time Louis lays eyes on Iris, it’s all about the eyes, and from his side. Louis and a few other men stare at Iris through the window of the doll shop, watching her work, as though she is an object displayed in a museum. One of the men is Silas Reed, a taxidermist who becomes obsessed with Iris upon first glance, an obsession that rapidly darkens into a desire to possess her. Women being saved from their imprisonment by men is a common theme in the art of that time – what happens when someone wants to recreate that art in real life?

When Laura Mulvey introduced the concept of the male gaze in 1975, she gave a name for a practice and mindset that has been prevalent for centuries. In her debut novel The Doll Factory, Elizabeth Macneal uses historical fiction to highlight how many problems of the 1850s continue to persist today. At the core of Macneal’s examination of the Victorian era is an incisive look at the artistic beliefs and practices of the time. She brings in lots of famous historical figures and events from the era – Louis Frost is a fictional artist, but the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood he belongs to and his fellow members (John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt) were real, prominent contributors to the evolving landscape of European art. Louis’s painting that Iris models for is also to be displayed in The Great Exhibition of 1851.

Photo: Elizabeth Macneal

Much like how the real Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood prioritised what’s real over what’s attractive, Macneal peels back the layers of Victorian life to bring attention to the dark consequences of idealising beauty and love. The Doll Factory is a compelling gothic tale that doesn’t shy away from the horrors and brutal violence that the poor and the women suffer at the time. The chapters on Silas can get very creepy and frightening, and those averse to animal cruelty should be warned that there are graphic scenes related to his taxidermy. There is sharp critique running throughout Macneal’s prose, about men’s warped ideas of loving and “saving” women, but she is not in-your-face about it. Rather than satire or parody, the novel is a realistic portrayal of everyday life in the Victorian era; Iris is not your radical 21st century feminist, but a woman who intelligently weighs social perceptions of women with her personal ambitions.

Towards the end of the novel, as Silas’s sinister plan unfolds, the novel becomes more of a thriller than simply historical fiction. Yet, there is also anticipation of a subversive conclusion. Macneal invites us to believe in Iris’s strength throughout the novel, so the main question is a hopeful one: we don’t ask if she will be saved and by whom, but how she will save herself. Through superbly gripping and original storytelling, The Doll Factory reminds us that real love, humanity and self-empowerment can shine against the horror and gloom.

TV rights have already been snapped up! We can definitely see this richly evocative novel on screen, so we can’t wait for the TV adaptation.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal will be released on 2 May 2019. Look out for it at your nearest bookstore!

We would like to thank Pansing for providing us with an advance reader copy in exchange for an honest review.