Elizabeth Macneal’s first novel, The Doll Factory, is as full of strange, beautiful and horrifying things as a Victorian curiosity cabinet. Her protagonist, Iris, moves from sweatshop labour making dolls’ clothes to the exotic company of the Pre-Raphaelites, only to become the object of a collector’s obsession. She spoke to Historia about her novel and her experience as a first-time published author.
Where did the initial idea for The Doll Factory come from?
I first thought that this novel was two different books. I really wanted to write about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, especially Elizabeth Siddal (an artist in her own right, but also model and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti). However, I couldn’t get past the idea that I was writing a biography and I wanted to have freedom with the plot in a way which I couldn’t achieve through writing about a real historical figure.
Then, one rainy day I stumbled into Viktor Wynd’s Museum of Curiosities and I was fascinated by the mind which collected – which felt the desire to amass and preserve. But I couldn’t make my modern-day collector (as I thought he was) work in a novel.
I came up with The Doll Factory when I realised that the collector and female artist could be part of the same story: my modern collector was in fact a dark Victorian figure, reflective of the vogue for memento mori and 1850s clutter. And Lizzie Siddal was Iris – a fictional character around whom I had the freedom to construct my own plot, like Lizzie but different. And both characters were linked by the yearning for acceptance, ambition, their love of craft, the sense of display in their work, and through the objects which they work around.
Did you make any unexpected discoveries while doing your research?
I loved researching the novel. There were all sorts of wonderful nuggets that I discovered and couldn’t resist including in the novel, as long as they didn’t interfere with the forward momentum of the plot. I was fascinated by Henry Mayhew’s accounts of The London Poor, which included reference to dollmakers and the eyes they made from white enamel.
I learned that false teeth were often made of walrus (‘sea-cow’) tusks, that there was a vase made of mutton fat displayed in the Great Exhibition, and that Millais stank out his family house by painting a decaying calf’s head which he bought from the butcher.
You’ve said that The Doll Factory is “a story of painting, collecting, love, obsession and possession”. Which of these did you enjoy writing about most?
It is difficult to separate these themes as I see them as so intertwined. For example, it was impossible for me to write about painting without touching on possession, on love, on collecting, on obsession. I would say that I particularly enjoyed writing about obsession – the overlap between this and ambition, and how each character expresses their obsessions in differing ways. In some cases it can be a driving and positive force; in others it is sinister and destructive.
There are scenes of great joy in your book, and scenes of great cruelty. Which were the hardest to write?
Again, this is a tricky one to answer – I wanted to write a book full of contrasts, mirroring and opposites, so it was important that these emotions co-existed. I actually found that the moments of simple cruelty or simple joy were among the easiest to write. The emotions were pure, straightforward. The parts which I found more difficult to write were the scenes with more nuanced emotion. In particular, the relationship between Iris and her twin Rose went through several drafts. I spent a while getting it right; that very slight balance between pity and sympathy, between jealousy and yearning.
What do you hope readers of The Doll Factory will come away with?
I hope that, above anything, they will be entertained. I would love a reader to relish the hours they spend getting lost in my fictional world.
Your work is beautifully visual; I found I was watching the story in my head, like a film. And the Pre-Raphaelites play an important role in The Doll Factory. Are you an artist as well as a writer?
Thank you! I am a potter as well as an author, although I’m always pleased that my work doesn’t have to be judged solely on aesthetic merit – it’s functionality first. I used to paint quite obsessively as a teenager. I had to give it up because it was engulfing all of the time I should have spent revising other subjects.
I’m really interested in the artistic mentality – how to see the world as composition or as light and shade. I really enjoyed researching this element of the novel and speaking to artists about how they approach their work, as well as reading more about the process itself: oils and powders and sable brushes.
The Doll Factory has already created a lot of excitement: the Caledonia Novel Award, a bidding war, translation into 28 languages, TV rights sold. What’s it been like for you in the middle of it all?
It’s been utterly surreal – this was beyond even my wildest dreams. I spent a good few weeks in a giddy daze, barely able to believe it was true. Experiencing these emotions helped me a lot when I was editing The Doll Factory – how Iris would have felt to realise her ambitions, to find herself thrown into a world she never imagined she would inhabit. However, I still feel fundamentally the same about writing. I love it and am maddened by it in equal measure. I treasure the quiet moments at my desk.
Have you got any tips for other first-time authors?
I’ve really valued the friendships which I’ve made with other novelists over the last year – both experienced and first-time. Particularly with other debut authors, we’ve been able to share joys, anxieties, advice, and the utter elation of it all. This has been immensely valuable and reassuring, and everybody is in the same position so there’s little judgement. So I’d say, do your best to meet other debut novelists (even if only over Twitter), and support them.
What has being a member of the HWA meant to you?
It’s been great! Liz Fremantle mentioned that I should join, and I’m so glad that I took her advice. Some of the friendships which I mentioned above came about because of Historia. Writing can be such a solitary enterprise and it’s fabulous to meet others in a similar position (and also to geek out over historical fiction together).
And – I won’t be the only one asking this – are you working on a second book?
I am! It’s also set in 19th-century London. At the moment it is very precious and tentative, so all I’ll say for now is that it’s about the construction of a Victorian cemetery, about evolution and ideas, and about fossils; and it has a powerful young woman at its heart.
Elizabeth Macneal was born in Edinburgh and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University, before working in the City for several years. In 2017, she completed the Creative Writing MA at UEA where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship. The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, won the Caledonia Novel Award 2018.
Photo of Elizabeth Macneal by Pan Macmillan
Viktor Wynd’s Museum of Curiosities by Robert Lamb: via Geograph
The Mud-Lark from London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew: Wellcome Images via Wikimedia
Love’s Messenger by Marie Spartali Stillman: via Wikimedia
Dolls from the Judges’ Lodgings, Lancaster, by Clem Rutter: via Wikimedia