‘The Doll Factory’ is a novel that supplants modern issues to 1850s London. Purity, possession and a tryst with a taxidermist. Get stuffed, you lot.
The debut historical novel from English author Elizabeth Macneal is launching the career of a talented writer with an inviting, evocative and timely novel; timely in as much as one can be set in 1850s London.
Set in a Victorian London of doll emporiums and curiosities, Macneal’s novel is one of a heroine, Iris, born with a minor deformity, but with a positive outlook. Sadly, the same cannot be said for her sister, Rose, now pockmarked after contracting pox in what one could imagine were less than sanitary surrounds.
With ambitions to become a painter, Iris catches the eye of a creepy taxidermist (because there’s only one kind, surely), whose interest turns to obsession—one which can only be cured by him wholly possessing her. It’s a story that’s been told before, but seldom in a historical setting such as this one. It’s also vividly, frankly sexual, with intimate scenes described unflinchingly, but refreshingly well, and free from the caustic, clichéd notions stemming from the male gaze.
Iris grapples with how she had best not discourage potential suitors without making them feel rejected, lest her “purity” come into question. I’m sure that more than a few readers would begrudgingly relate to the dilemma.
The skills in Macneal’s characterisations are found in her portrayal of Iris as being flawed, yet still sympathetic a lead character; decidedly “modern” in her outlook with ambitions, yet grounded by a need to remain within a traditional sphere of family.
This is a comparative page turner, a novel of an interesting set of contrasting choices made by the author. Part grounded in a very real sense of foreboding doom when it comes to a man wanting to possess what he cannot have—deluded by the nature of what he thinks is by all rights, his—at the same time much of the novel is devoted to vivid descriptions of the art and beauty which surrounds Iris, to occasionally paint her as being almost blissfully ignorant of the very real peril she’s faced with.
It’s a fairly telling theme throughout, as Iris grapples with what the expectations of her are; how she had best not discourage potential suitors without making them feel rejected, lest her “purity” comes into question. I’m sure that more than a few readers would begrudgingly relate to the dilemma.
No means no, after all.