“The Doll Factory” by Elizabeth Macneal – Book Review

Twins, the Whittle sisters are twenty-one years old and working in a doll factory when we first meet them. They are in the employ of a drug-addled despot named Mrs. Salter. They work grueling hours and live in a damp basement room under the shop. Rose sews the wardrobes of the dolls, while Iris paints the delicate features of their faces. The sisters were beautiful but are both flawed. Rose carries the horrible physical scars of smallpox, while our protagonist, Iris, has a deformed collar bone.

It is that deformity that causes Silas to become obsessed with her. Silas Reed is a taxidermist and covets any physical deformity or manifestation that would make his ‘art’ unique. Silas, already mad, has been driven even more insane by his abject loneliness and his unrequited love for Iris Whittle.

It is the year of the Great Exhibition in London. The ‘Crystal Palace’ has been built especially to house and display over one hundred thousand exhibits from many fields of study.

Great Exhibition London 1851

In , a poor area of London, lives the diminutive, toothless, pickpocket Albie.  Remember, this story is set during the time of Charles Dickens, so the reader immediately thinks to compare him to Oliver Twist. Albie lives in a squalid room beneath a brothel with his sister, a prostitute. At only seven years of age, he has seen it all. When his sister ‘entertains’ customers on the bed, Albie lies under the bed and holds her hand. Heartbreaking stuff!

Our protagonist, Iris Whittle, longs to be free. Free of the drudgery of working in the doll factory, free of the tyrannical Mrs. Salter, free of her twin sister who has been bitter towards her ever since she contracted small pox. Rose is jealous of Iris’s beauty. She is also envious of Iris’s artistic talent.

It is young Albie who introduces the artist Louis Frost to the lovely Iris. When she is tempted by him to come and work as his muse, his model, she leaves her sister Rose – and her reputation – behind her. In exchange, Louis will teach her how to paint…

Louis is a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

The character of Iris Whittle was inspired by the true life female artist of the time, Lizzie Siddall.

She has exchanged her reputation, her sister’s regard, and any kind of relationship with her parents – for her freedom.

Freedom to paint. Freedom to love…

The more I read historical fiction, the more I’m convinced that the phrase “the good ol’ days” is a misnomer. This novel is set in the mid nineteenth century and back then, for the average person, times were far from good.

Another thing I appreciate about historical fiction is that I always learn something from it, no matter how much fictional license an author takes, there are always elements of truth within. Some books, like this debut by Elizabeth Macneal, is well researched with loads of factual information thinly disguised.

This brilliant cast of characters were all well wrought. The tragic Whittle sisters, the evil Mrs. Salter, the twisted, lonely, Silas, the artist Louis Frost, even the pet wombat Guinivere, all were easily imagined by the reader. The character that most stole my heart was the impish pickpocket, Albie.

The historical time period has been described vividly. The social mores of the time, the squalor of the poor areas of London, the majesty of the Great Exhibition, the colours of the oil paintings, are all brought to fruition by the author’s excellent description.

The cover of this novel is a work of art in and of itself. Under the bell jar are renditions of so many of the plot’s contents. Iris herself, Silas’s stuffed mice, butterflies, and even the Crystal Palace itself!

This is a fiction debut that is sure to enchant lovers of historical fiction. In addition, the reader gets an intense and very dark story of obsession. With a sinister and gothic atmosphere, this novel is highly recommended!

This review was written voluntarily and my rating was in no way influenced by the fact that I received a complimentary digital copy of this novel from Simon & Schuster Canada via NetGalley.

368 pages
ISBN: 9781982111939

Elizabeth Macneal was born in Scotland and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio in her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University, before completing the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship. The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, won the Caledonia Novel Award in 2018.

Visit her ElizabethMacneal.com or on Twitter @EsMacneal or on Instagram @ElizabethMacneal

About Fictionophile

Fiction reviewer ; Goodreads librarian. Retired library cataloger - more time to read! Loves books, gardening, and red wine. I have been a reviewer member of NetGalley since October 2013. I review titles offered by Edelweiss, and participate in blog tours with TLC Book Tours.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, debut novels, gothic fiction, Historical fiction, NetGalley and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to “The Doll Factory” by Elizabeth Macneal – Book Review

  1. carhicks says:

    Wow, amazing review Lynne. It was the cover of this book that drew my eye and after reading your review and comments on the cover, I can only imagine how wonderful the story is. This period of time in London was so hard on everyone, I want to read this one, even though parts of your review made me shudder.

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins says:

    Oooh, this sounds great! Sometimes I wonder why we don’t get more Victorian-era historical fiction – there’s lots of Regency (particularly romance), and WWI and II, but there seems to be a gaping hole in the middle? This one would definitely fill that gap, by the sounds. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice review. I thought this was a very good book, and I agree that the author captured the setting and its atmosphere perfectly.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Glad you enjoyed this, I had bought an ecopy as I love all things Pre-Raphaelite but then I also got a copy for Christmas – I must bump it up my list.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. jenanita01 says:

    I know I will enjoy reading The Doll Factory, it has everything!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Carol says:

    Intriguing! 👍

    Liked by 1 person

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