Modern Painters

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal, Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 362 pp.

John Everett Millais, “Mariana.” 1851, Tate Britain, Photo © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 

Fittingly for a book about a young woman rejecting conformity, Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel The Doll Factory resists being placed in any one box. It is simultaneously historical novel, thriller, art history, romance, treatise on collecting and more with a Wombat’s Lament to boot. Macneal is unafraid to go into the dark, but her book is also full of joy, passion and creativity.

One could see The Doll Factory as simply about confinement. After all, when we enter the book and the vision of 1850s London presented by Macneal, things seem grim and less than hopeful. Iris and her twin sister Rose are toiling away at the Doll Emporium run by the cruel Mrs. Salter, addicted to various medications. In secret, Iris paints. Through a string of events, she is discovered—both by the (fictional) Pre-Raphaelite painter Louis Frost and by Silas Reed, an unsettling taxidermist. Louis convinces her to become his model and agrees to teach her painting techniques. Silas grows distressingly obsessed with capturing her in a different way.

In my reading, however, this focus on the many types of confinement Iris struggles with leads to the main theme here which is freedom: social, financial, sexual and, perhaps most importantly, artistic. This is partly, also, where the Pre-Raphaelites come in. What Macneal captures so wonderfully is the radically charged ambitions of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, their search to show the real and to not idealize. At one point, Louis describes their wish “to paint Jesus with dirty feet, Joseph with a wart on his chin—that is real—not this wishy-washy dullness with dark backgrounds. We will bring our pieces to life.” Macneal brings the Pre-Raphaelites themselves to vibrant life, including Millais, Holman Hunt and Rossetti, within a particular moment. This is the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood before they were anything close to an art historical certainty and were rather often criticized harshly and controversial.

Macneal also captures Iris’s coming of age as an artist in a moment where this was far from assumed. In her first meeting with Louis, she thinks that “perhaps they have found some way of seeing her paintings, and they want her to join them in the Brotherhood—but already, she knows from the name that this is a group only for men.” Through her lessons with Louis, though, she develops an identity as an artist and new ways of seeing. This is a process Macneal, a practicing potter herself, describes in many riveting pages. Macneal also captures the intense tedium of modeling and how “profoundly physical” it is. For those looking for strong narratives about female artists, this is a special addition.

In the space here, it is not possible to cover anything close to the whole of the book. The part that I want to emphasize is how wonderful Macneal’s writing on art is. In one scene, at a Royal Academy art exhibition, Iris notes that "this is a room hiding careful consideration and ticking minds, all of which exist beneath these paintings like the machinations of a clock behind its plain face.” This book offers a chance to remember the lives behind artworks and the slow work each painting represents.

At the top of this post, I included Millais’s painting, “Mariana.” This painting comes up in the book when

Louis points out that, if anything, he may as well accuse Millais of copying him with his Mariana wistfully awaiting her lover in her chamber, and he buys Hunt a box of his favorite boiled sweets. Hunt laughs at last, and agrees that as their paintings all seem to touch on imprisonment, rescue, and the agony of waiting, they may as well embrace it as a PRB motif for 1951.

These motifs recur throughout the book as well, of course. This passage shows, as many others in the book do, how carefully Macneal places her characters and her story in a context. Looking at “Mariana” again, I am struck by how the Millais balances the light from the window brightly soaking Mariana’s face and blue dress with the darker shadows of the other side of the room where a single suspended candle lights a religious triptych. The painting is a balance of hope and fear in waiting, a moment of stasis, like those experienced by Iris. Like this painting and many others by the PRB, Macneal manages to achieve a bright and vividly alive sense of reality, showing a moment in the past and allowing it to resonate in particular ways with the one we are in today.