The Doll Factory

A Novel

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About The Book

The #1 International Bestseller

New York Times Editor’s Choice

“A lush, evocative Gothic.” —The New York Times Book Review

This terrifically exciting novel will jolt, thrill, and bewitch readers.” —Booklist, starred review

Obsession is an art.

In this “sharp, scary, gorgeously evocative tale of love, art, and obsession” (Paula Hawkins, bestselling author of The Girl on the Train), a beautiful young woman aspires to be an artist, while a man’s dark obsession may destroy her world forever.

In 1850s London, the Great Exhibition is being erected in Hyde Park and, among the crowd watching the dazzling spectacle, two people meet by happenstance. For Iris, an arrestingly attractive aspiring artist, it is a brief and forgettable moment but for Silas, a curiosity collector enchanted by all things strange and beautiful, the meeting marks a new beginning.

When Iris is asked to model for Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her to paint. Suddenly, her world begins to expand beyond her wildest dreams—but she has no idea that evil is waiting in the shadows. Silas has only thought of one thing since that chance meeting, and his obsession is darkening by the day.

“A page-turning psychological thriller” (Essie Fox, author of The Somnambulist) that will haunt you long after you finish it, The Doll Factory is perfect for fans of The Alienist, Drood, and The Historian.

Excerpt

The Doll Factory Silas Reed’s Shop of Curiosities Antique and New
Silas is sitting at his desk, a stuffed turtle dove in his palm. The cellar is as still and quiet as a tomb, aside from the slow gusts of his breath that ruffle the bird’s plumage.

Silas puckers his lips as he works and, in the lamplight, he is not unhandsome. He has retained a full head of hair in his thirty-eighth year, and it shows no sign of silvering. He looks around him, at the glass jars that line the walls, each labeled and filled with the bloated hulks of pickled specimens. Swollen lambs, snakes, lizards, and kittens press against the edges of their confinement.

“Don’t wriggle free of me now, you little rascal,” he mutters, picking up the pliers and tightening the wire on the bird’s claws.

He likes to talk to his creatures, to make up histories that have landed them on his slab. After considering many imagined scenarios for this dove—disrupting barges on the canal, nesting in a sail of The Odyssey—he has settled on one pretence he likes; and so he rebukes this companion often for its invented habit of attacking cress sellers. He releases his hold on the bird, and it sits stiffly on the wooden post.

“There!” he exclaims, leaning back and pushing his hair out of his eyes. “And perhaps this’ll teach you a lesson for knocking that bunch of greens out of that little girl’s arms.”

Silas is satisfied with this commission, especially given that he rushed the final stages to have it ready by the morning. He is sure the artist will find the bird to his liking; as requested, it is frozen as if in midflight, its wings forming a perfect “V.” What’s more, Silas has skimmed further profit by adding another dove heart to one of the yellowed jars. Little brown orbs float in preserving fluid, ready to fetch a good price from quacks and apothecaries.

Silas tidies the workshop, wiping and straightening his tools. He is halfway up the ladder rungs, nudging the trapdoor with his shoulder as he cradles the dove, when the consumptive wheeze of the bell sounds below him.

Albie, he hopes, as it is early enough, and he abandons the bird on a cabinet and hurries through the shop, wondering what the child will bring him. The boy’s recent hauls have been increasingly paltry—maggoty rats, aging cats with smashed skulls, even a half run-over pigeon with a stumpy claw. (“But if you knew, sir, how hard it is with the bone grubbers pinching the best of the trade—”) If Silas’s collection is to stand the test of time, he needs something truly exceptional to complete it. He thinks of the bakery nearby on the Strand, which made a poor living with its bulky wholemeal loaves, good only for doorstops. Then the baker, on the brink of debtors’ prison, started to pickle strawberries in sugar and sell them by the jar. It transformed the shop, made it famous even in tourist pamphlets of the city.

The trouble is, Silas often thinks he has found his special, unique item, but then he finishes the work and finds himself hounded by doubts, by the ache for more. The pathologists and collectors he admires—men of learning and medicine like John Hunter and Astley Cooper—have no shortage of specimens. He has eavesdropped on the conversations of medical men, sat white with jealousy in drinking holes opposite University College London as they’ve discussed the morning’s dissections. He might lack their connections, but surely, surely, one day Albie will bring him something—his hand trembles—remarkable. Then, his name will be etched on a museum entrance, and all of his work, all of his toil, will be recognized. He imagines climbing the stone steps with Flick, his dearest childhood friend, and pausing as they see “Silas Reed” engraved in marble. She, unable to contain her pride, her palm resting in the small of his back. He, explaining that he built it all for her.

But it is not Albie, and each knock and ring of the bell yields more disappointment. A maid calls on behalf of her mistress, who wants a stuffed hummingbird for her hat. A boy in a velvet jacket browses endlessly and finally buys a butterfly brooch, which Silas sells with a quiver of disdain. All the while, Silas moves only to place their coins in a dogskin purse. In the quiet between times, his thumb tracks a single sentence in The Lancet. “ ‘Tu-mor separ-at-ing the os-oss-ossa navi.’ ” The ringing of the bell and the raps on the door are the only beats of his life. Upstairs, an attic bedroom; downstairs his dark cellar.

It is exasperating, Silas thinks as he stares around the pokey shop, that the dullest items are those that pay his rent. There is no accounting for the poor taste of the masses. Most of his customers will overlook the real marvels—the skull of a century-old lion, the fan made of a whale’s lung tissue; the taxidermy monkey in a bell jar—and head straight for the Lepidoptera cabinet at the back. It contains vermilion butterfly wings, which he traps between two small panes of glass; some are necklace baubles, others for mere display. Foolish knick-knacks that they could make themselves if they had the imagination, he thinks. It is only the painters and the apothecaries who pay for his real interests.

And then, as the clock sings out the eleventh hour, he hears a light tapping, and the faint stutter of the bell in the cellar.

He hurries to the door. It will be a silly child with only tuppence to spend, or if it is Albie, he’ll have another damned bat, a mangy dog good for nothing but a stew—and yet, Silas’s heart quickens.

“Ah, Albie,” Silas says, opening the door and trying to keep his voice steady. Thames fog snakes in.

The ten-year-old child grins back at him. (“Ten, I knows, sir, because I was born on the day the Queen married Albert.”) A single yellow tooth is planted in the middle of his upper gums like a gallows.

“Got a fine fresh creature for you today,” Albie says.

Silas glances down the dead-end alley, at its empty ramshackle houses like a row of drunks, each tottering further forward than the last.

“Out with it, child,” he says, tweaking the boy under the chin to assert his superiority. “What is it, then? The foreleg of a Megalosaurus, or perhaps the head of a mermaid?”

“A bit chilly for mermaids in Regent Canal at this time of year, sir, but that other creature—Mega-what-sumfink—says he’ll leave you a knee when he snuffs it.”

“Kind of him.”

Albie blows into his sleeve. “I got you a right jewel, which I won’t part with for less than two bob. But I’m warning you now, it ain’t red like you like ’em.”

The boy unravels the cord of his sack. Silas’s eyes follow his fingers. A pocket of air escapes, gamey, sweet and putrid, and Silas raises a hand to his nose. He can never stand the smells of the dead; the shop is as clean as a chemist’s, and each day he battles the coal smoke, the fur-dust, and the stink. He would like to uncork the miniature glass bottle of lavender oil that he stores in his waistcoat, to dab it on his upper lip, but he does not want to distract the boy—Albie has the attention span of a shrew on his finest days.

The boy winks, grappling with the sack, pretending it is alive.

Silas summons a smirk that feels hollow on his lips. He hates to see this urchin, this bricky street brat, tease him. It makes him draw back into himself, to recall himself at Albie’s age, running heavy sacks of wet porcelain across the pottery yard, his arms aching from his mother’s fists. It makes him wonder if he’s ever truly left that life—even now he’ll let himself be taunted by a single-toothed imp.

But Silas says nothing. He feigns a yawn, but watches through a sideways crocodile eye that betrays his interest by not blinking.

Albie grins, and unmasks the sacking to present two dead puppies.

At least, Silas thinks it is two puppies, but when he grabs hold of the limbs, he notices only one scruff. One neck. One head. The skull is segmented.

Silas gasps, smiles. He runs his fingers along the seam of the crown to check it isn’t a trick. He wouldn’t put it past Albie to join two dogs with a needle and thread if it fetched him a few more pennies. He holds them up, sees their silhouette against his lamp, squeezes their eight legs, the stones of their vertebrae.

“This is more like it, eh,” he breathes. “Oh, yes.”

“Two bob for’t,” Albie says. “No less than that.”

Silas laughs, pulls out his purse. “A shilling, that’s all. And you can come in, visit my workshop.” Albie shakes his head, steps farther into the alley, and looks around him. A look almost like fear passes over the boy’s face, but it soon vanishes when Silas tips the coin into his palm. Albie hawks and spits his disdain on to the cobbles.

“A mere bob? Would you have a lad starve?”

But Silas closes the door, and ignores the hammering that follows.

He steadies himself on the cabinet. He glances down to check the pups are still there, and they are, clasped against his chest as a child would hold a doll. Their eight furred legs dangle, as soft as moles. They look like they did not even live to take their first breath.

He has it at last. His pickled strawberry.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Doll Factory includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

In 1850s London, the Great Exhibition is being erected in Hyde Park , and, among the crowd watching the dazzling spectacle, two people meet by happenstance. For Iris, an arrestingly attractive aspiring artist, it is a brief and forgettable moment, but for Silas, a curiosity collector enchanted by all things strange and beautiful, the meeting marks a new beginning.

When Iris is asked to model for Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees, on the condition that he will also teach her to paint. Suddenly, her world begins to expand beyond her wildest dreams—but she has no idea that evil is waiting in the shadows. Silas has thought of only one thing since that chance meeting, and his obsession is darkening by the day.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. When we think about obsession in the novel, Silas is most likely the first character who comes to mind. Yet many of the characters have something that drives them and that they obsess over. Think about who is obsessed with what. What do these obsessions have in common? Where lies the divide between healthy and harmful obsession?

2. Charles Dickens, a contemporary of the Pre-Raphaelites, is mentioned by characters early on in the novel. What themes does THE DOLL FACTORY share with novels written by Dickens? What writing techniques does Elizabeth Macneal employ that are similar to those of Dickens?

3. What are the different societal constraints our main characters work against to achieve their goals? Do any of these limits still exist in our era? Which ones seem to have stayed in Victorian times?

4. Of all the imaginary pieces of art described in the book, which one would you most like to see? What about it interests you?

5. Why does Iris feel such affection for Albie? Do you feel the same way about him?

6. How are mastery and control expressed in the novel? How do these concepts differ from each other, and which characters exhibit them?

7. How does the slow revelation of Silas’s true relationship to Flick affect the novel? At what point did you realize how dangerous Silas was? What details does Elizabeth Macneal give us early on to indicate that all is not what it seems with Silas?

8. While the painting of Guigemar’s queen is the most prominent example, many of the paintings described mirror the characters’ experiences. Google a few of the paintings and see how they are reflected in the characters’ arcs.

9. Do you sympathize with Rose? Does your opinion of her change throughout the novel?

10. Courtly love is a medieval literary tradition in which a knight proved his love for a noble woman through a series of tests, and the knight and his intended lady are presented as idealized figures. It has been an influence upon many artistic movements and was a key interest of the Pre-Raphaelites. Reread page 156, where Louis explains why he is beginning to tire of it. In what ways does courtly love play out within the novel? Who upholds its ideals and who counters them? How do you see the ideals of courtly love reflected in discussions of relationships and gender in our own times?

11. Women are consistently “captured” in the novel, whether literally or figuratively (Guigemar’s queen, Iris’s likeness in the painting, Flick and Iris by Silas, Rose by Mrs. Salter, even Guinevere the wombat). Discuss the various constraints put upon women in the novel and how they do or do not break free.

12. Considering the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s dedication to truth (“taking truth to nature”—or representing the world accurately—was one of their tenets), what do you think of Louis’s omission about his wife and child? Do you think Iris’s reaction was fair?

13. What did you make of Albie’s death? What were the narrative advantages of this?

14. With its emphasis on freedom, medieval culture, and courtly love, and the name itself, is there a place for women in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood? To counter, consider how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood also gave space to women, both in the novel and historically, to become artists and not just muses.

15. What do you make of the review of Iris’s painting at the end of the novel? What does it imply about the lives of Iris, Louis, and Rose? Why do you think Iris included Albie in it? How does it tie in with the themes of the novel, particularly of objects and symbolism?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Research the history of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and its members. Choose one of their paintings described in THE DOLL FACTORY and give a report to your book group. Be sure to include its size, the materials used, any historical or mythological allusions in the work, qualities that make it pre-Raphaelite, and contemporary reactions to the artwork. Don’t forget to bring a photo to show everyone!

2. Iris’s story can be compared to the Pygmalion myth, in which the sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with one of his creations. Many writers have used this Greek myth in their work. One of the most famous works is George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Have your book group read it, or watch the musical adaptation, My Fair Lady. Though THE DOLL FACTORY is set a few decades before Shaw wrote his play, there are many similarities in its exploration of class mobility and gender roles. Discuss how Iris is similar to Eliza Doolittle. How are Louis and Silas similar to Henry Higgins? In what ways do they differ? What other themes do you think both Shaw and Macneal explore?

3. The Pre-Raphaelite movement was not made up only of visual artists, but also writers, and especially poets. Pick a Pre-Raphaelite poet, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti or his sister, Christina Rossetti, and analyze its language, themes, and symbols. As with the paintings you researched, what qualities make the poem pre-Raphaelite? Is there anything in it that reminds you of THE DOLL FACTORY?

About The Author

Born in Scotland, Elizabeth Macneal is a potter based in London, where she works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University and completed the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia in 2017. In 2018,  she won the Caledonia Novel Award for her debut novel, The Doll Factory.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (August 13, 2019)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982106768

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Raves and Reviews

“When a book refuses to shy away from squalor and brutality while venerating the passionate and beautiful, it is always a memorable experience—The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber; The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver; Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. Joining this list of haunting novels is Elizabeth Macneal's unapologetically lush debut, THE DOLL FACTORY... There is hardly an aspect of Victorian London that [Macneal] has not mastered.”

– The New York Times Book Review

"A sharp, scary, gorgeously evocative tale of love, art and obsession."

– Paula Hawkins, internationally bestselling author of The Girl on the Train

"A stunningly confident first novel with a real sense of period and place . . . thoroughly engrossing."

– Ian Rankin, New York Times bestselling author of RATHER BE THE DEVIL

"Talented debut novelist Macneal drops readers right into a Victorian London that’s home to stinking squalor and chaos, but also significant beauty and possibility. Midway through, readers won’t know if they're holding a romance, tragedy, or murder mystery, but won’t pause long enough to wonder about it as Iris rails against the limitations of her gender and social status, and Silas’ creepiness comes into sharp focus…This terrifically exciting, chiaroscuro novel became an instant bestseller in England, with TV rights already sold, and will jolt, thrill, and bewitch U.S. readers, too."

– Booklist (starred review)

"A stunning novel that twines together power, art, and obsession. At every turn expectations are confounded - it’s a historical novel and yet feels incredibly relevant and timely. I loved its warmth, its wry humour, and the way each small thread leads into an unbearably tense and chilling denouement that had me totally gripped."

– Sophie Mackintosh, Man Booker Prize-longlisted author of The Water Cure

"An astonishingly good debut. The Doll Factory reminded me of The Crimson Petal and the White, Fingersmith and Vanity Fair but had a richness of tone that was uniquely its own. Macneal writes with utter mastery, creating a lushly intricate world peopled by living, breathing characters you can’t help but fall in love with and a plot that rattles like a speeding carriage to its thrilling conclusion. I couldn’t put it down. You won’t be able to either."

– Elizabeth Day, award-winning author of THE PARTY

"I lovedTHE DOLL FACTORY from the very first page and couldn’t do anything else until I’d read right to the end. An exquisite novel of obsession, delusion, resilience and love, Elizabeth Macneal really is a breathtaking new talent."
 

– AJ Pearce, internationally bestselling author of DEAR MRS. BIRD

"Engrossing and atmospheric. Fascinating real historical background (the Pre-Raphaelites) and super invented characters. I can practically see the TV version!"

– Adele Geras, award-winning author of THE BALLET CLASS

"With strong echoes of John Fowles' The CollectorThe Doll Factory is at once a vivid depiction of a morally dubious world, and a page-turning psychological thriller, with a truly compelling villain."

– Essie Fox, critically-acclaimed author of The Somnambulist

"A gripping, artfully written historical novel with a highly contemporary sensibility. The setting - 19th century London full of pomp, grime and menace - plays just one part in an immersive and intellectually satisfying narrative that interrogates gender politics, classism, relationships, artistic obsession and erotomania with a painterly eye and gleefully dark heart. Part love story, part gothic novel and leading up to a truly breathless conclusion, this book is destined to be one of the biggest titles of 2019, deservedly so."

– Sharlene Teo, award-winning author of Ponti

"Fantastic - vivid, poignant, colourful, and elegantly horrifying."

– Bridget Collins, internationally bestselling author of THE BINDING

"This brilliant literary thriller gripped me from the opening page and didn’t relinquish its hold until I’d read the final sentence. The Doll Factory conjures 1850s London in all its grime and glory, possibility and restriction in absorbing, immersive detail. Elizabeth Macneal has created that rare thing: a beautifully researched historical novel with a plot to stop your heart. If this is her first book, I can barely wait to see what she writes next."
 

– Hannah Kent, award-winning author of BURIAL RITES and THE GOOD PEOPLE

"THE DOLL FACTORY is brilliant, with a refreshingly original quality, beautifully orchestrated narrative, great characters and some fascinating background detail."

– Andrew Taylor, No. 1 Sunday Times bestselling author of THE ASHES OF LONDON and THE AMERICAN BOY

"THE DOLL FACTORY is one of the best books I’ve read in ages – heartbreaking and evocative. Elizabeth Macneal draws a vivid picture of life in 1850s London, exploring the world of the pre-Raphaelites and examining the position of women through her unforgettable heroine. At the same time, Elizabeth creates a perfectly structured and page-turning story of love and passion; crime and obsession. A wonderful and intense novel. I loved it."

– Jenny Quintana, author of THE MISSING GIRL

"A remarkably assured and beautifully written debut, filled with sinister delights and intriguing themes of imprisonment and objectification. A truly captivating read."

– E C Fremantle, author of THE POISON BED

"A darkly beautiful exploration of the razor’s edge between creation and destruction."

– BookPage, "8 New Voices To Discover"

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