It is a very special day here on Love Books Group. We have a lovely wee team of reviewers now with Kim, J.A. Warnock and Tanya Kannta. Today we have anew addition to the family. Dr Clare Horrocks joins us from England. Today is Dr Horrocks, first review for us and it is for The Doll Factory. Why not give Dr Horrocks a warm welcome in the comments below.
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 yearns to have his work displayed in the Royal Academy, and he 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 . . .
Review by Dr C Horrocks
I must confess that I fell in love with this book for its cover! I was intrigued with the snow globe effect, London as a microcosm with St Pauls and the Crystal Palace at the centre. The blurb firmly establishes the context as London 1850. As an academic who researches Victorian newspapers and comedy, this book falls into the genre we like to call Neo-Victorian. The problem with this approach though is that we get too tied up in how true to the period the narrative is. But don’t worry, I won’t be writing an academic essay today!
Second confession – should this be a blog entitled Confessions of an Academic Turned Book Reviewer?!
No, but seriously, this book didn’t engage me from the outset. I struggled to get into it. We all have days like that and I drifted away. However, I was asked to go back to the book for a monthly book club read so I started with a more determined and focused mind set. I made it past page 43 and found that it really started to take off at this point. This is no surprise when you realise that page 48 is where the PRB is introduced – the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It is at this point that the reader really starts to see some of Elizabeth Macneal’s beautiful characterisation.
The book starts with a depiction of Iris, the exquisite but disabled doll maker who aspires to escape and become an artist in a society that sought to constrain female ambition. She becomes an object of desire for the seedy and disturbing Silas Reed who is a taxidermist who provides stuffed models for the Pre-Raphaelite brothers. Here is the meeting point for the novel, the place where the characters’s fates cross over. The go-between and messenger between these two contrasting worlds of poverty and wealth is Albie.
Albie is a young scavenger, not unlike Jo the crossing-sweeper in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. A figure on the margins of society but who exists at the centre of the plot and who captures the heart of his readers. With his single tooth and wiley grin, Albie is continuously chasing the next penny in a bid to save up for a pair of false teeth. With a sister driven to prostitution, the two siblings live in the basement of a brothel; a brothel it turns out to be frequented by Silas Reed.
Iris is taken under the wing of Louis Frost, friend of Johnnie Millais and Gabriel Rossetti as a sitter, making friends with Lizzie Siddell who has the same role with Rossetti. Anyone with an interest in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood will immediately recognise these names. Author Elizabeth Macneal in an author Q and A told me that researching the period and developing her love and understanding of the Brotherhood was a big part of writing this novel. It certainly shows and as the plot evolves, the pace of the narrative picks up and hooks its readers.
So, don’t judge the book by its cover, give the narrative a chance to draw you in, once you get past page 50 you won’t be able to put it down. There are few good shockers in here and Macneal holds you to the last.
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