Elizabeth Macneal’s acclaimed first novel, The Doll Factory, is shortlisted for the HWA Debut Crown Award for 2020. Historia talks to her in the third in our series of interviews with historical writers shortlisted for HWA Crown awards.
The HWA Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
Definitely! I had the great luck of growing up in Edinburgh, a city teeming with history. In every street, I could see the centuries jostling against each other, from the grand and neat crescents of the New Town, to the warrens of tiny closes off the Royal Mile. It was never difficult to imagine the various residents who had walked the streets hundreds of years before me, and I found the idea very exciting.
Your main female character, Iris, is based on the artist Lizzie Siddal. How did you make Iris a person in her own right?
The character of Iris was definitely born from the constraints of trying to breathe life into a real historical figure. I attempted to fictionalise Lizzie Siddal directly, but somehow it felt like an intrusion to imagine the desires and character of a woman who had really lived (exacerbated, I think, by the fact that the value of her life was so often placed secondary to art; even after her death Rossetti had her corpse exhumed in order to retrieve a book of poems he had buried in her coffin).
And so, I found a real energy and freedom when I decided to create an entirely fictional character in Iris. I was able to write about so many of the things which interested me in Lizzie’s life – how it might have felt for her life to change from shopgirl to model and painter; the tensions of being a model at a time when such a thing was associated with degradation; and the ideas of objectification, preservation and erasure – but I could shape her character and desires and stories as I wanted.
The Doll Factory is set in London in the 1850s; what made you write about that particular place and period?
It’s a fascinating decade – I even wrote my undergraduate thesis on clutter in 1850s culture. Even just 1850-1851 was a time of such change, such soaring ambition. There was so much that I wanted to explore and animate. Mass-manufacture was on the rise, as epitomized by the construction of The Great Exhibition – a vast and temporary glass palace in Hyde Park designed to show all that was new in industry and commerce. As a symbol of London’s ambition, it was irresistible.
Under the shadow of this museum, all of the characters have their own dreams – Silas to open his own museum, Iris to be an artist, and even the toothless street urchin Albie just dreams of owning a set of false teeth.
These were also the years when the fortunes of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood changed, when they began to be taken more seriously as a group of artists. So within two years, you’ve got these monumental examples of display, manufacture, ambition, objectification – I just knew I had to write about it.
Is historical research a pleasure or a chore?
A pleasure! If anything, the difficulty is knowing when to stop. There came a time when I had to slam shut my research books after I’d spent six hours reading about the manufacture of 19th-century doorknobs. There’s a point when it becomes procrastination.
What was the most surprising thing you found while doing your research ?
That taxidermists often have a tank of flesh-eating beetles to help them get their skeletons. Horrifying! I decided this was a step too far even for Silas…
What was your path to publication?
For so long, writing was a quiet, private place, and I sat at my desk not knowing if I was any good or if I would ever be published. Like many other authors, I wrote a few books which didn’t find a publisher. People often ask me if I will do anything with them now. I am a potter, and it would feel a bit like deciding to sell the first misshapen pots I threw (which were so bad my own mother wouldn’t accept them as a gift). Those early books were my apprenticeship; I tinkered around and made mistakes and learned how to assemble a sentence and a plot and a character.
I wrote those novels in the early mornings before work, between 5 and 7am. When the second novel didn’t make it, I decided that I needed to learn more, to collaborate more. I decided to apply to the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing MA, and it was a transformative year.
I returned to the basics, and treated other novels as textbooks – how does Patricia Highsmith build Ripley’s character and deploy pace and menace? How does Hilary Mantel build a world? How does Sarah Hall build a sentence? I was surrounded by other students who loved words and writing and books just as much as I did.
At the end of the year, I started writing The Doll Factory. It won The Caledonia Novel Award and Madeleine Milburn, the agent judging it, signed me. Within three days we had fourteen offers from publishers. It felt surreal and incredible and like it had all happened so quickly, but there were many quiet years behind it.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Keep writing and keep reading. When I’m struggling to write, I read a book by an author I admire, and I find that very inspiring. Also, keep pushing, even through the most painful of setbacks. When my second unpublished novel was rejected, I remember thinking: the only way I can guarantee that I’ll never be published is if I never write again.
Who are your favourite historical writers?
Sarah Waters is magnificent. Fingersmith is a work of absolute genius. The writing, the setting, the characters, the twist! Usually I find twists deeply unsatisfying because I can see them coming from a mile off, but Sarah Waters had me well and truly shocked. I also love The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, anything that comes from the pen of Daniel Mason, The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan, and The Confessions of Frannie Langton by my fellow shortlistee Sara Collins.
And finally, can you describe your book in five words?
Art, obsession, collecting, possession, love.
Read Historia’s earlier interview with Elizabeth.
Find out more about The Doll Factory in our review of her novel.
During November Historia will feature interviews with other writers who’ve made it through to the final round of judging, including Jung Chang, John Larison and Tim Mohr. The winners of the three Crown Awards will be announced on 25 November, 2020.
Photo of Elizabeth Macneal: Mat Smith Photography
Edinburgh; the Old Town
Self-portrait by Lizzie Siddal via Wikipedia
Plate from Dickinsons’ comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851: via the Internet Archive
Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, modelled by Lizzie Siddal: via Wikimedia