“The wombat is a joy, a triumph, a delight, a madness.” Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The leader of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Rossetti, had a particular affection for wombats, and one of them turns up in a small but key role in Elizabeth Macneal’s much-acclaimed novel The Doll Factory, set in 1850s London around the world of the Pre-Raphaelites, writes Clive Edwards.
The wombat, appropriately called Guinevere, is just one of the many curiosities in a book that is teeming with the oddities and eccentricities of Victorian urban life. Silas Reed runs a shop of Curiosities Antique and New full of macabre stuffed animals which he sells to the Brotherhood as props for their intricately detailed paintings.
A few streets away Iris Whittle spends her days painting china dolls with her sister Rose in another run-down curiosity shop, Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium. Mrs Salter is a laudanum-addicted harridan who treats the sisters as little more than slaves, and Iris dreams of becoming a real painter.
Connecting the two is a street urchin called Albie, a wonderful character, who survives on finding dead animals for Silas to stuff. He has only one tooth in his head and dreams of buying a new set of walrus cow teeth for the unattainable sum of four guineas. He looks after his prostitute sister who works in a local brothel, and he is befriended by Iris.
This is like Dickens in overdrive, but overlaid with a very modern sense of the darkness beneath and a taste for the macabre and twisted that brings to life the true horrors of Victorian London.
Iris has a deformed collarbone, broken in childhood and badly rejoined that captivates the attention of creepy Silas. Immediately there is a sliver of unease that you know will grow and grow.
Iris gets the chance to break free from her drudgery when she is asked to model by painter Louis Frost,a (fictional) member of the Pre-Raphaelites and owner of the wombat, who will in return teach her to paint. But this comes at a high price. She must abandon her sister, be rejected by her parents and lose her good name.
Elizabeth Macneal has created an astonishingly vivid picture of the Victorian underbelly where life for the poor was one bad deal after another, clinging to the edge of existence until they were swept under.
It’s hard not thrill as Iris gets her first taste of intellectual enlightenment with Rossetti and Millais and indeed of love with Frost but there is a terrible feeling that the bargain will be too costly as the threads of Silas’s obsession begin to enfold her.
And then of course there is Guinevere the wombat. Macneal is not afraid to have fun with history, taking Rossetti’s obsession with the animal and transplanting it to her fictional Louis Frost. There is an enjoyable playfulness here as Iris and Louis fall out over the wombat and Louis responds with a poem, The Wombat’s Lament, that is as tongue-in-cheek as it sounds.
Macneal moves surefootedly from poignant yearning to humour to a truly compelling sense of menace. The dread as Silas moves closer to Iris is so palpable that I found it difficult to read on in places. By then I was so invested in Iris and her budding hopes that the fear of what might happen to her was almost too much to bear.
This is a powerhouse of a book, by turns ferocious and frightening. It’s been compared to The Collector and Possession but for me the closest is The Crimson Petal and the White in its examination of the degradation of women and the very high price they had to pay for any kind of emancipation at all. But I would say that, thanks to an ingeniously compelling story, The Doll Factory is out on its own.
To paraphrase Rossetti’s paean to his wombat: this book is a joy, a triumph, a delight, a madness. And it will live in the reader’s mind for a very long time.
Read Elizabeth’s interview with Historia about her novel and how she went about writing it.
Clive Edwards is the HWA’s former publicity director.