Chelsea Mancilla, Guest Writer
If you haven’t heard about it already, “The Doll Factory” by Elizabeth Macneal should be on your reading list, especially if you enjoy historical fiction. The story features a captivating mix of themes, including romance and thriller. Set in England during the Great Exhibition of 1850, the story’s point of view alternates between Iris Whittle, young Albie, and the taxidermist Silas Reed. The change of narrator explores different perspectives and adds to the suspense.
The author introduces Iris as an aspiring artist that must wait for her sister to fall asleep and sneak into the cellar to do her painting. Although she is an identical twin, she is recognized by her noticeably hunched left shoulder. When she was born her collarbone broke and never healed properly. When she and her twin Rose were young they had a close relationship. However, when Rose suddenly contracted smallpox which resulted in permanently scarring her face and blinding her left eye, their relationship changed. Iris, although considered “deformed,” still had the impeccable beauty that Rose had formerly been cherished for. When Rose discovers Iris’ painting of herself – done nude – she forbids Iris from pursuing art. Iris resists her sister’s pleading requests, but then she discovers that Rose has thrown her painting supplies in the rubbish bin.
Despite her deformity, pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost wants to use Iris as his model, after he gets into a quarrel with his former model. At first, Iris is weary of Louis’ request. At the time, modeling was no better than prostitution. However, Iris takes advantage of Louis’ eagerness for her own gain, and mandates that he will teach her how to paint. Iris is influenced by a real pre-Raphaelite model, Lizzie Siddal. Commonly called “Lizzie,” she went on to become a prolific artist in her own right and also married Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
At first, you may want to sympathize with Silas Reed, who often bemoans his difficult upbringing and how unfortunate it was for him when his friend, Flick, died, or how he can’t share his work as he had shared it with Gideon, a medical student. However, as the reader gets to know Silas, you’ll realize his narrative as the faultless victim hides his malevolent character. Macneal writes beautiful and startling descriptions. One of my favorite lines about Silas is, “He feigns a yawn, but watches through a sideways crocodile eye that betrays his interest by not blinking.”
Finally, I won’t forget about toothless Albie, a young boy that has been losing his mature teeth and hopes to save up enough money to buy fake teeth. He often visits Iris at the Doll Emporium, dropping off rags for them to use. Iris worked at the Emporium before modeling for Louis. Albie is also the fated coincidence of how Silas discovers Iris. When Albie is not at the Emporium, he delivers dead animals to Silas to be added to his collection. While touring the Great Exhibition, the three of them came together for a mere second while Albie was pickpocketing. After this moment, Silas could think of nothing else except Iris. From her red hair to her crooked collarbone, she was his queen. However, Iris continues her day without a second thought. She hardly remembers his name and becomes perplexed when he later invites her to his shop. Macneal had an unusual and elegant way with words, that will make you wonder about the depths of morality. I hope you will consider finding “The Doll Factory” at the closest library or bookstore.