The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

An intoxicating story of art, obsession and possession

Doll Factory

Picador|2 May 2019|336 pages|Review e-book copy|5*

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is one of the best books I read so far this year. It captivated me with its tale of Iris, the young woman who worked painting dolls in Mrs Salter’s Dolls Emporium, but who dreamed of being an artist. It tells of her involvement with the Pre-Raphaelite artists – in particular with Louis Frost (a fictional character) who attracted by her beauty and her red hair wants her to model for him. She agrees, despite the disapproval of her parents and twin sister Rose, on the condition that he teaches her to paint. Meanwhile Silas Reed, a taxidermist and a collector of curiosities, worships her from afar and fantasises that she returns his love.  

But it’s much more than my brief outline conveys. This is historical fiction that transports me back in time and place to the 1850s when the Great Exhibition is being constructed and then opened to the public, a time when the young artists who had recently formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, first formed in the summer of 1848, are challenging the art world with their vivid paintings, at once both stylised and naturalistic. The descriptions take me straight into London of the early 1850s with all its sights and smells, its squalor and bustling crowds as people go about their daily lives.

There are some really memorable characters, such as ten year old Albie, who collects dead creatures for Silas. He lives with his sister, a prostitute, in a ramshackle house down a dead-end alley and with just one tooth he dreams of buying a set of false teeth. Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt also appear alongside the fictional characters and I loved all the details about their paintings, and their fascination with wombats. Rossetti owned two wombats – the inspiration for Louis’ wombat, Guinevere, who lives in his studio.

As I read on I began to feel a growing sense of menace and the tension between the characters rose almost to an unbearable peak as the book reached its conclusion. It’s full of atmosphere, dark and gothic towards the end as it reached its climax – and left me wanting more. It’s wonderful – historical fiction, art history, and a love story as well as a dark tale of obsession, pulsing with drama, intrigue and suspense.  I loved it!

About the Author

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 in 2017 where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship.

The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, won the Caledonia Noel Award 2018. It will be published in twenty-eight languages and TV rights have sold to Buccaneer Media.

Many thanks to the publishers, Picador, for my review copy via NetGalley.

ABC Wednesday: B is for …

Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti c. 1863, (Tate Britain)Dante Gabriel Rossetti  was one of the original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Beata Beatrix was inspired by Dante’s poem La Vita Nuova about his love for Beatrice, but it is actually a painting about Rossetti’s wife, Lizzie, mourning her death.

In 1850 Rossetti had fallen in love with Lizzie Siddal, a milliner’s shop assistant, who had agreed to pose for William Deverell, another member of the Brotherhood. She became a favourite model of all the members, including posing for hours in a tepid bath as Millais’s Ophelia. Rossetti, though, became increasingly possessive about her and they lived together and eventually married in 1860. But he gave her a hard time, neglecting her and was unfaithful. They lived in dark, cold and  damp rooms at Chatham Place, near Blackfriars Bridge. Lizzie’s health deteriorated. She was frail and depressed, and became addicted to laudanum. After her child was stillborn, Rossetti came home late one night in 1862 he found her dead, with an empty phial by her side. The official verdict was accidental death but to Rossetti it felt like suicide (which was illegal and immoral at the time and would have barred her from a Christian burial).

Rossetti’s portrait mourns Lizzie’s the death, showing her in a ecstatic, trance-like state. The haloed red dove, the messenger of Love, carrying a flower has become the messenger of Death and the flower is a poppy, the symbol of sleep and death and also the source of opium (laudanum), the drug which killed her.

I think this is such a beautiful, powerful painting ‘“ Rossetti described it saying Lizzy was ‘˜rapt from earth to heaven‘.

Linked to ABC Wednesday.

Work by Ford Madox Brown

Work by Ford Madox Brown (1852 – 1865)

Taking 13 years to complete, Work is Ford Madox Brown’s major achievement. After he finished it he exhibited it along with a detailed catalogue describing it and explaining its significance. Wikipedia has a detailed account, but put simply this painting is of workers of all descriptions, both physical and intellectual as well as non-workers – the unemployed and the leisure classes.

Work by Ford Madox Brown

The painting is oil on canvas, held at Manchester City Art Gallery. (Click on image to enlarge.) There is so much to see in this painting, so much activity and social comment!

An ABC Wednesday W post.

The Pre-Raphaelites

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was first formed in the summer of 1848. From the start their work had no common denominator – the painters called “Pre-Raphaelites” were all individual and their paintings show great contrasts. Pre-Raphaelitism cannot be defined; there are as many differences between the paintings as there are similarities. The original members of the Brotherhood were James Collinson, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, Frederick Stephens and Thomas Woolner. Other artists became more or less loosely associated with the movement.

This isn’t a post about art history or about individual artists. I just wanted to record some of my favourite paintings that can be defined, somewhat loosely in some cases, as Pre-Raphaelite.  I love looking at these, mainly for the colour and style of the paintings. In no particular order of preference they are as follows.

Millais Ophelia blog

Ophelia by John Everett Millais 1851 – 1852, showing the drowned Ophelia from Hamlet. This reproduction doesn’t do justice to the original, which is held by the Tate Britain, currently part of the Millais Exhibition on display in Japan -in the Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art from 7 June to 17 August 2008, and The Bunkamura Museum of Art, 30 August to 26 October 2008. For more infomation click here. I particularly like the detail in Ophelia’s dress and flowers which are all symbolic.

William Dyce blog
Pegwell Bay, Kent, a Recollection of October 5th, 1858 by William Dyce 1859 – 1860, (Tate Britain). The figures in the foreground are members of Dyce’s family, dwarfed by the chalk cliffs behind. Again it’s the detail and colour that I love in this painting. It doesn’t show in the reproduction below but in the sky is the trail of Donati’s comet.
Rossetti_beata beatrix

Then an absolute favourite  – Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti c. 1863, (Tate Britain). This was inspired by Dante’s poem La Vita Nuova about his love for Beatrice. This is Rossetti’s portrait mourning the death of Lizzie Siddell in a trance-like state. The white poppy because she was thought to have been poisoned with opium and the sundial pointing to 9 relating to the meeting of Dante and Beatrice when he was 9 years old. I think this is such a beautiful, powerful painting – Rossetti described it saying Lizzy was ‘rapt from earth to heaven’.


Work by Ford Madox Brown, 1852 – 1865 (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery). It’s the movement and gestures of the figures that I like in this painting and the contrasts in the characters. There are the workmen digging and drinking as they work, a beggar, the figures of Carlyle and F D Maurice (the ‘brain workers’), the rich, dogs and children. There is so much to see in this painting.

Little is known about Henry Wallis, who painted Chatterton, 1856 (Tate Britain). I like the pathos in this painting and the contrast between the illuminated figure of Chatterton as the dawn light strikes the dark background of the attic room where he had killed himself. Peter Ackoyd’s novel Chatterton tells the story of the artist’s suicide.

The paintings are copied from Wikipedia where there is a list of paintings by Pre-Raphaelite artists and artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelite style. The Pre-Raphaelites by Timothy Hilton is a very good source of information, with many reproductions of the paintings mainly in black and white, but with a few in colour. I haven’t included all my favourites – more to come in another post, maybe.

Dante’s The Divine Comedy

Dante finished writing The Divine Comedy in 1321 shortly before his death. The subject of the final talk in my course on Dante’s Florence was The Divine Comedy, its sources, structure, an introduction to some of its characters, concluding with Dante’s legacy in art.

I don’t think that I’ve ever had such a long introduction to a literary work and I’m eager now to actually read The Divine Comedy. My copy is the Oxford World’s Classics publication. It is 741 pages long, including several introductory essays with plans and maps, and copious notes. I also have the much shorter The Descent Into Hell translated by Dorothy L Sayers. This is only 130 pages and contains extracts from the Inferno (the first part of The Divine Comedy).

Dante’s first title for this was The Vision. He wrote it in Italian, not Latin, so that it was accessible for everyone. It was recited and is basically a sermon, a sacred poem. He changed the title to comedy, which in the ancient tradition was a story, beginning as tragedy and moving to a happy ending. Boccaccio added Divine to the title in the 14th century. It’s an epic, allegorical poem and also an historical chronicle of Dante’s time packed with information on topics such as politics, theology, geography, the arts, and love.

It depicts three regions of the dead – Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise – a journey through the spiritual realms. There are 100 cantos, written in third rhyme – terza rima, invented by Dante, ie the first and third lines rhyme, with the second line indicating the next rhyme. This is an aid to memory and also helps to move the narrative forward. It’s packed with imagery, with multiple meanings and although it includes contemporary characters it’s amazingly modern. Florence is depicted as hell, with the Pope, Boniface VIII and clerics condemned because of the corrupt state of the church, although Dante describes meeting Christian theological thinkers in Paradise.

Dante used many sources, including the Bible, Greek mythology, Roman history, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Livy, legends, miracle and medieval morality plays and his own stories. The poem begins with an exciting episode at the gates to the underworld in a dark, confusing wood, symbolising doubt, sin and the sterility of the soul. Dante, the narrator, has lost the path and is guided by Virgil through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise, where he meets his beloved Beatrice, who guides him through Heaven. Paradiso is the place of perfect harmony ordained by God. Dante followed the Ptolemaic system of the Cosmos in which Earth is the centre of the universe. He placed Hell at the centre of the Earth, underneath Jerusalem, reached through nine different circles, containing sinners suffering terrible punishments and torture. Purgatory was somewhere in the southern hemisphere, ascending up to Paradise located in Heaven above the Earth.

There are about 600 characters in the whole poem, 250 from the classical era, 80 from the Bible and 250 from Dante’s own time. Dante admired Virgil, his guide through Hell and Purgatory. He describes him as that fount of splendour, symbolising human reason and wisdom. Amongst the many characters are Brunetto Latini, Dante’s mentor who took an active role in politics and the art of oratory, found in Hell because of the sin of sodomy, which was considered as violence against nature; and Farinata degli Uberti, the leader of the Ghybelline party, also found in Hell as punishment for heresy because he was an Epicurean believing that the soul died with the body. He rises from the burning tomb of heretics to speak to Dante. The first mention of Florence is from Ciacco, guilty of the sin of gluttony, when he refers the bloodshed between the citizens of ‘the divided city‘.

Other people mentioned are members of the ancient Donati family (Dante’s wife was Gemma Donati) – Dante’s friend Foresi Donati, Corso Donati, a thief being changed into a serpent and Piccarda Donati his sister,  ‘pearl on a white forehead’, who had belonged to the Order of Poor Clares and was forced to marry to forge a political alliance; the violent tempered Agenti who opposed Dante’s recall from exile; Gianni Schicchi (the source of Puccini’s opera – including the beautiful aria O mio babbino caro); and Count Ugolino, the tyrant who had switched allegiance and was left to starve in Pisa’s Tower of Famine – he was said to have eaten his sons and grandsons and for punishment in Hell was forced to chew on the head of Archbishop Ruggieri.

The Divine Comedy has been read and copied ever since with commentaries coming very quickly after Dante’s death. The first biography of Dante was written in about 1351 by Giovanni Boccaccio, based on oral history from Dante’s contemporaries. The poem was seen as a difficult, obscure work, gothic and heavy going in 14th century England, but Chaucer mentioned it in the Monk’s Tale in his Canterbury Tales. English translations were made from 1802 onwards by Henry Boyd and Henry Cary (promoted by Coleridge). It influenced amongst others John Milton, Shelley and Byron, Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

There are many examples of Dante’s legacy in art – here are just a few:

Giotto’s Last Judgment, in the Arena Chapel in Padua.
Frescos in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella showing the tiered compartments of Hell and Cerberus the monster with three throats, wings and the body of a beast guarding Hell and the Elect – Saints and Cardinals rising up from their tombs.
The Last Judgment of Fra Angelico.

The painting of the Madonna in Majesty by the Siennese painter Martini.
Botticelli’s scenes of Inferno commissioned to illustrate The Divine Comedy by the Medicis – 92 survive and are in the Vatican Library.

Drawn in pen and ink he intended to colour them all. The one shown below is of the City of Dis, the lower part of Hell, with winged monsters, and the Circle of Deceivers. Dante is shown in red and Virgil in blue.

Frescoes of the Last Judgment in Orvietto Cathedral in 1500 reflecting the doom and gloom of the times fearing the end of the world with images of the damned, a mass of contorted bodies, by Signorelli, a master of human anatomy – the Resurrection of the flesh showing skeletons and bodies emerging from their tombs.
Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.
Gustave Dore’s illustrations of The Divine Comedy.

William Blake’s watercolour paintings of Inferno

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s translation of La Vita Nuova in 1848.
Christina Rossetti’s studies of Dante – she saw him as a figure of romance.
Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix 1863 – his portrait of Lizzie Siddell in a trance-like state. The white poppy because she was thought to have been poisoned with opium and the sundial pointing to 9 relating to the meeting of Dante and Beatrice when he was 9 years old. This is one of my favourite paintings.

Rodin’s Gates of Hell and The Thinker, also The Kiss, depicting Francesca de Rimini whom Dante meets in Canto 5 of the Inferno. Francesca had fallen in love with Paulo, her husband’s younger brother. The legend goes that they were killed by Giovanni, her husband.

There are many, many more – see this Wikipedia link.