Book review: The Doll Factory, by Elizabeth Macneal

Elizabeth Macneal' PIC: Mat Smith
Elizabeth Macneal' PIC: Mat Smith
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The Doll Factory scarcely needs a review. It is already a success and, according to its publishers, is “the most coveted debut of 2019, an intoxicating story of art, obsession and possession.” Elizabeth Macneal is a graduate of the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia where she was the Malcolm Bradbury Scholar, and The Doll Factory has won her the Caledonia Novel Award and has been sold to “28 territories so far,” while TV rights “have already been snapped up.”

I’m not surprised. Who could resist a story of “art, obsession and possession” beginning in London in 1850 as the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park is being prepared, and offering an agreeable mixture of glamour and squalor, inviting – and receiving – the adjective “Dickensian”? The cast-list is headed by a (slightly) disabled girl, who works alongside her pock-marked sister in the doll factory of the title while nursing an ambition to be a real painter, plus a malignant taxidermist and a resourceful street urchin with a single yellow fang in his mouth, and the supporting cast includes members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Moreover, her heroine, Iris, was born from Macneal’s fascination with Lizzie Siddal, model for John Everett Millais’ drowned Ophelia, and later not only the muse, model and unhappy wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but also a talented painter herself.

Macneal has a magpie’s eye for whatever is bright and glittering, and she writes vividly, employing the present tense more deftly and with more vivacity than is usual – that’s to say, it doesn’t, as so often, prevent the narrative from moving briskly. Her characters may be the stock figures of pastiche Victorian fiction, but she contrives to animate them sufficiently to make them pleasing. The narrative is nicely orchestrated – so much so that improbabilities are easily accepted. For the book is in its way a thriller too, certainly a crime novel, even if the denouement falls short of being surprising.

Inevitably the adjective “Dickensian” will be attached to The Doll Factory. All novels set in the mid-19th century and revelling in the splendour and contrasting horrors of Victorian London are so called. This is useful shorthand, even if what is missing from almost every novel that is so labelled is the moral seriousness of Bleak House and Great Expectations, not to mention the horror of Oliver Twist. The Dickensian novel, unlike a real Dickens novel, is pure entertainment and The Doll Factory is unquestionably entertaining.

It has its faults, but they are the faults of youthful enthusiasm; the faults of a young writer suddenly discovering her power and taking pleasure in exhibiting it. In an author’s note released by her publishers, she tells us she “absolutely loved researching and writing this novel, and cramming it full of all the things which fascinate me.” This is an honest confession. Many have written first novels with a like enthusiasm – sometimes coming to regret that they have used up too much experience. But I doubt if that’s the case here. The novel seems to derive from the author’s enthusiasms, not, like so many first novels, from her experiences. It’s not a story of her emotional, moral or intellectual development.

It’s accomplished; there’s nothing raw about it. Today’s young novelists have all been schooled in the making of a novel and they have usually submitted drafts of it to fellow students as well as teachers, and taken their suggestions and criticisms on board. Their novels are far less clumsy, far less raw, than first novels so often were a couple of generations ago. The Doll Factory is a perfect example.

In the acknowledgements Macneal thanks a long list of people for their help and encouragement. No doubt they have all been useful. Nevertheless, it’s fair to assume that only she is responsible for the novel’s charm. It is indeed charming. But is it about anything that matters? Perhaps we shall have to wait for a second or even a third novel before knowing whether the author’s evident ability can carry her beyond charm so that she deals with matters of significance, writing something which has the reader engaged in both feeling and thought. - Allan Massie

The Doll Factory, by Elizabeth Macneal, Picador, 361pp, £12.99