Picador fought a 14-way auction to acquire this Victorian London-set debut and rights have sold in 27 territories. The year is 1850 and Iris Whittle toils away as a doll-maker for a pittance while dreaming of becoming a painter in her own right. Through a twist of fate she encounters one of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and is persuaded to model for him. But she has also caught the attention of one Silas Reed, a collector with macabre tastes, who develops an obsession.
Perfectly paced and richly atmospheric, The Doll Factory is an incredibly assured debut novel. Writing about visual art isn’t always easy to do well, but Macneal writes about her real and fictional artists and their work so evocatively that the reader not only sees the vivid colours in their palettes, but understands their importance to the pre-Raphaelites. The generous, good natured Frost is, of course, fictional, but Macneal deftly inserts him into the heart of the PRB; he has friendly arguments with Holman Hunt, shares Rossetti’s affection for pet wombats and, like Millais, becomes the object of Dickens’s critical ire.
Macneal has a magpie’s eye for whatever is bright and glittering, and she writes vividly, employing the present tense more deftly and with more vivacity than is usual – that’s to say, it doesn’t, as so often, prevent the narrative from moving briskly. Her characters may be the stock figures of pastiche Victorian fiction, but she contrives to animate them sufficiently to make them pleasing. The narrative is nicely orchestrated – so much so that improbabilities are easily accepted. For the book is in its way a thriller too, certainly a crime novel, even if the denouement falls short of being surprising. Inevitably the adjective “Dickensian” will be attached to The Doll Factory. All novels set in the mid-19th century and revelling in the splendour and contrasting horrors of Victorian London are so called. This is useful shorthand, even if what is missing from almost every novel that is so labelled is the moral seriousness of Bleak House and Great Expectations, not to mention the horror of Oliver Twist. The Dickensian novel, unlike a real Dickens novel, is pure entertainment and The Doll Factory is unquestionably entertaining.
A deliciously Gothic concoction that abounds with energy and imagination, conjuring up 1850s London life in all its Dickensian glory.
Macneal marries art, obsession and possession in a plot that gains momentum and leaves the reader breathless.
In Victorian London, a small, grubby boy dozes under a bed, pretending he is sailing on a tea clipper. Atop the bed, his sister is doing what she must to make money and survive. This is the world chronicled by Elizabeth Macneal in The Doll Factory, one of those debuts that comes swirled in hype and breathless talk of a 14-way auction between eager publishers...
The Doll Factory is a remarkably strong debut; clever and readable with flashes of wonderful, descriptive prose. When we meet Louis, “his dark hair billows, as wild as a dandelion clock”. I hope Macneal survives the hype and goes on to fulfil the promise this novel shows.
Macneal’s London is vividly rendered: all rosy nipples, beads of blood from cracking the backs of fleas, and strawberries pickled in sugar. Like Angelica Neal, the heroine of Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Iris has an appetite for confectionery. In her case, it is toffee caramels, and reading this novel is a little like gorging on sweets. The Doll Factory is a page-turner, make no mistake, but this is a rare instance when readers might have preferred the writer to slow down. Macneal writes wonderfully pithy descriptions but they are occasionally not given enough bandwidth, sacrificed to a fairly breathless plot. Some of the characterisation is a little overripe and the last third of the book suffers from Iris having her agency somewhat blunted. But these seem like peevish quibbles when the prose is this captivating and the story is so engrossing. Macneal also powerfully explores the ways in which a woman in the past might have been obliged to “encourage and discourage, so as not to lead to doubts of her purity and goodness but not make the men feel snubbed”.
Novels set in the Victorian era are routinely described as “Dickensian”. Few of them warrant the adjective. However, in its evocation of the seething energy of 1850s London, its immersion in the detail of the 19th-century city’s everyday life and in its fascination with the macabre and the eccentric, Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel does feel genuinely Dickensian. Add a keen exploration of the restrictions that were placed on women and the possessiveness of men, and you get a remarkable example of historical fiction... Macneal charts her heroine’s quest to escape her confinements, metaphorical and actual, by the men who admire her in a story full of life, colour and intelligence.