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A frequent complaint about contemporary popular fiction set in mid-19th century London is that the female protagonists are improbably liberated for the era, notoriously one of the least amenable to any notions of British female independence in the last millennium. So there might be a degree of eye-rolling if I mention that the protagonist of Elizabeth Macneal's THE DOLL FACTORY is an impoverished young woman who dreams of leaving behind her present occupation of painting the faces of china dolls in a sweatshop to become a successful artist. Of course, those familiar with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood might also recall Elizabeth Siddall, model to Millais, among others, and ultimately wife to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who did in fact become an influential artist and a poet. And Lizzie, as she was known, came from a background at least as deprived as Iris Whittle's in this novel.
Iris works beside her sister Rose, whose face bears the scars of smallpox and whose soul has never recovered quite from the devastation of being jilted by her fiancé once her condition was revealed. Iris loves her sister, but is increasingly constrained by her dependency which demands that Iris confine herself to the limitations Rose feels are her lot in life. Iris may yearn for a life in art but she very much a woman of her time and feels intensely the tugs of family and respectability that she has been schooled to honour. Iris herself has a slight physical defect - a misshapen collarbone. It is this, apparently, which attracts the attention of Louis Frost, a (fictional) member of the Pre-Raphaelites, who dispatches his sister to recruit Iris as a sitter. Iris is reluctant - to accept is to lose her toe-hold on respectability and to be assumed to be a prostitute. But the lure of painting lessons from Louis is too great and in the end Iris leaves Rose and the factory and enters the heady world of the PRB.
She does not, however, leave behind two other characters who first made her acquaintance at the factory. One is a young boy, Albie, who shares a room with his slightly older sister who turns tricks at sixpence a time. Albie has one burning desire - he has but one tooth and he yearns for a full set of sea-cow ivories that cost an astronomical three pounds, a sum he can only dream of. The other is the grotesque Silas, a sort of taxidermist who specializes in exceedingly creepy curiosities for the Victorian parlour. His current triumph is a pair of conjoined puppies. He also dreams of greatness - in his case of an entire museum devoted to his art. In time, he also becomes obsessed with Iris.
THE DOLL FACTORY is a debut and certainly an accomplished one, but working all these threads into a coherent whole is a difficult proposition. The central theme of the book is clearly the limitations imposed upon women, both then and to a degree now, by the expectations of men. The PRB was a rebel movement and roundly criticized by the likes of Dickens and Ruskin and as such provided some space for women like Lizzie Siddall and Christina Rossetti to develop their art. But they were nevertheless constrained by social expectations of how far they could go, both personally and artistically. Iris finds this out quickly enough as Louis Frost, surprised to find he has a talented woman for a pupil, does what he can to keep her in her place and out of the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, to which he has finally gained entrance. Iris is there all right, but only in the picture Louis has painted of her, a picture in which she appears as an emblem in the faux-medieval history favoured by the PRB.
It is, however, the other "artist," Silas, who is the more aggressive in his desire to confine Iris and perhaps transform her into one of his "curiosities." His menace creeps through the book from the beginning but expresses itself vigorously only toward the very end, where circumstances and Iris's own bid for agency conspire to deliver her into his hands.
It is an almost unbearably tense conclusion, but one I was not altogether comfortable with. It is the kind of thing that might sell the book, but at the expense of diverting attention from the more challenging ideas in the central core of the novel. All the same, THE DOLL FACTORY is well worth your time and attention, though I wouldn't read the final chapters much past your bedtime.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, August 2019
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