The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal



London. 1850. On a crowded street, the dollmaker Iris Whittle meets the artist Louis Frost. Louis is a painter who is desperate for Iris to be his model. Iris agrees, on the condition that he teaches her to paint.

Dreaming of freedom, Iris throws herself into a new life of art and love, unaware that she has caught the eye of a second man. Silas Reed is a curiosity collector, enchanted by the strange and beautiful. After seeing Iris at the site of the Great Exhibition he finds he cannot forget her.

As Iris’s world expands, Silas’s obsession grows. And it is only a matter of time before they meet again…


The Doll Factory is set in Victorian England in 1850 and focuses on Iris Whittle, a young woman who works as a doll artist alongside her twin sister, Rose, in The Doll Emporium, a shop that creates made-to-order dolls under the watchful eye of Mrs Salter. Rose, once considered the prettiest, has grown bitter after being left badly disfigured from smallpox and Iris, once in her sister’s shadow, dreams of escaping the drudgery of their existence by becoming an artist. As Rose creates the tiny outfits for the dolls and Iris paints their faces, the sisters play a game of guessing whether the children in the photos from which they work are alive or dead. The darker side of Victorian life is a running theme throughout this novel and the obsession with mortality is one of them.

When Iris comes to the attention of artist Louis Frost, she realises her dreams may be about to come true when he begs her to become the model as her flame-haired beauty is perfect for the portrait he is currently painting. Iris hesitates as artist models are considered no better than prostitutes and she would be disowned by her parents. Not to mention the fact she would be abandoning her sister. However, the lure is too much for Iris to ignore and she manages to negotiate some painting lessons into the bargain. Louis is initially careful to ensure his sister acts as a chaperone whenever Iris is working for him but Clarissa soon has to leave to care for a sick family member. As Iris spends more time alone with Louis, she becomes increasingly attracted to him and is frustrated when Louis appears to be keeping his distance despite showing his feelings are mutual. However, Louis has secrets of his own which soon become evident.

Although Louis’s character is fictional, he belongs to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) and is friends with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais who pop in and out of the story. The PRB defined themselves as a reform movement encouraging individualism while incorporating realism and the natural world in their paintings. The PRB artists would use real people as models for the figures in their paintings which often gathered negative criticism. The focus on art is one of the best parts of the novel as the author’s own love for art shines through the scenes where the PRB are discussing their creations. It makes a nice contrast with the more filthy aspect of Victorian life that permeate the majority of the novel.

As well as attracting the interest of Louis, Iris also comes to the attention of Silas, a taxidermist and curio collector, who often provides the artists with stuffed animals for their paintings. Iris has a misshapen clavicle after a difficult birth and Silas is drawn to this imperfection so much so he begins to believe Iris is his true love. Silas is a very damaged individual who has been obsessed with anatomy all of his life but has managed to keep that interest mostly to the animal world so far. As the book progresses, Silas becomes increasingly obsessed with Iris to the extent he has imaginary conversations with her, however the illusion shatters when he discovers her relationship with Louis.

Silas’s obsession with Iris becomes increasingly disturbing as the story develops and more of his back story is revealed, including glimpses of a former love from his childhood who disappeared without trace. While Silas is undeniably creepy, he appears more pathetic than anything else and is never truly terrifying. The stalking of Iris consists of mainly watching the buildings where she lives and engineering the odd meeting where he invites her to visit his shop. Iris thinks he is odd and is unsettled when he approached her but never feels any real fear until he finally holds her captive. Locked up in his basement, Iris is tied to a chair and deprived of food until she agrees to write a letter to Louis breaking their relationship for good. I found these chapters incredibly dull and was yearning for Iris to be rescued just as much as she was.

When the end finally comes, it is a big disappointment as there is no real conclusion for the characters. Instead we move forward a few months to a painting being exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery that appears to have been done by Iris and is being hailed by critics. Iris spends a large chunk of the book wanting to have a painting accepted by the gallery so it feels like a real letdown not to witness the creation of the painting or the moment she learns it has been accepted.

While their some great characters introduced throughout, the favourite one has to be Albie, the street urchin, who is saving hard for a new set of teeth and live with his sister who is a sex worker, Albie is a resourceful chap who would be at home in a Dickens novel and he gets the measure of people straight away. He adores Iris who is always kind to him and is the first to realise the danger Silas poses to her but no one will listen to him. Albie and his sister live in extreme poverty and the author has a no holds barred approach to describing the filth that surrounds them. It’s a little too honest at times and more akin to a hammer on the head than an examination of societal deprivation.

The Doll Factory has become a bestseller and is on a lot of best reads lists but I just found it extremely slow with too many themes vying for attention.