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.
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.
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.