Set in 1850s London, Elizabeth Macneal’s The Doll Factory is a historical novel that follows two characters through the grime and poverty, chaos and violence, and an almost overwhelming sense of gloom that hangs over the city like a fog.
Iris is one of those two characters. She is a twin, and once, she was the ugly one with her twisted collarbone. But smallpox attacked her sister Rose and disfigured her.
When the novel opens, both of them work in the suffocating confines of Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium. It is a tedious, thankless job, and Iris often sneaks away in the dead of night to a private chamber where she tries to practice art on her own.
Silas is a taxidermist who ‘sources’ various specimens from the street urchin Albie. Usually, his specimens consist of dead animals.
The freakier they are, the better. Like the conjoined puppies he finds fascinating. Or mice. Lots and lots of mice that he dresses up in peculiar attire.
The Doll Factory recreates a London that is dark and ugly, and riddled with filth and disease. The poor are many and they suffer the worst. Iris’s sister Rose appears to be jealous, or insecure. The relationship between the twins is strained. Rose is caught between the puritan values of her parents and envy of her sister’s strength, and willingness, to find new opportunities. That her face is scarred from illness only adds to her simmering misery.
Iris is caught in the mind-numbing tedium of her job until one day she is offered a post as a model for a Pre-Raphaelite artist by the name of Louis Frost.
She agrees, with some misgiving, to be a model, provided the artist teaches her how to paint. And almost immediately, her life changes. She is drawn into the world of art and romance.
Iris, unlike Rose, is a character who dares to dream of better circumstances. She tries to break free and to think things through without, as far as possible, losing her sense of self. She is aware of her twisted collarbone, but even that, given the prejudices of the time, does not stand in her way.
For Silas, his work is accepted as good enough to be displayed in the Great Exhibition. It is a pursuit that keeps him busy, but chance makes him run into Iris, and from then on he is obsessed.
Iris, it seems, has grabbed his imagination, and not in a realistic way. He imagines how she speaks, how she looks, how she will be besotted with him if only he can capture her. Silas is a man often mocked and derided and each insult grows stronger and stronger in his memory until he has no idea what he is doing.
He seeks Iris’s validation for his existence. He expects her to show up for his exhibition. He visualises how she will like him. He creates conversations in his mind and hears her laughter. He imagines Iris to be something she is not.
He startles her by sending her invitations and then is angry and puzzled when she does not show up. He also seems to enjoy bringing about death to various creatures, and his methods are brutal.
And of course, everything he does is fuelled by something someone said to him earlier in his life. They mocked him, and they taunted him, and so his actions are determined by their reactions to him.
And then there’`s Albie, the urchin who brings Silas his samples for taxidermy. Albie is a perennially dirty, fast-talking boy with missing teeth. He dreams of having false teeth one day. He is protective of his sister and then of Iris, who has always been kind to him. He recognises Silas’s fascination with Iris for what it is – morbid obsession. But there is only so much a child can do.
The Doll Factory is not by any means an easy read. There are graphic descriptions of animal brutality, sickness, and all-round unpleasantness. Silas’s thinking is expertly portrayed – but his morbidity and violence are as elaborately detailed. The city of London appears convincing with its smoke and dirt, and the Thames smelling of rotten eggs. It is not a happy book and the story and characters find very little to be happy about.
Everything around them is shrouded in filth and gloom. The barrier between the upper and lower classes is stark. The poor have nothing and must scrounge for something to eat. The wealthy have enough to waste. And yet everybody has a distinct lack of hygiene, it seems.
The Doll Factory is definitely not a novel for the squeamish. In fact, it takes more than a little fortitude to read through the insanity of the characters and the darkness of it all.