The Doll Factory

book cover

By Elizabeth MacNeal

** Publication Date 13 August 2019 (US) **

In Victorian London live twins – Iris and Rose. They work in a doll factory. Rose sews the clothes for the dolls, Iris paints them. Often the dolls are created to imitate a child, living or dead. Rose was struck by smallpox which renders her disfigured. Iris’s collarbone was broken during childbirth which rendered her disfigured as well. 

Also in London are a group of artists known as the PRB. They paint in a tradition of bright lifelike colors. Louis Frost is taken with Iris and asks her to be his model in a new painting. Iris agrees to be Louis’s model with the promise that Louis will teach her how to paint. She leaves the Doll Factory and her disfigured sister behind, and begins this new life of art. During this same time, a taxidermist named Silas Reed develops an unhealthy obsession with Iris.  The Great Exhibition is about to begin and Silas wants Iris to be his companion. Perhaps he can woo her with his entry into the Great Exhibition. But Louis got there first.

I had no idea when reading this book that it was actually based on fact. The PRB, or Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of painters in the mid-1800s who pushed back against the popular painting techniques of the day, prior to Raphael’s paintings. While Louis Frost and the Whittle twins are fictitious, the PRB did exist. As did the Great Exhibition and the Academy. 

Regardless, this is a beautifully written story of obsession and love and pain and sisterhood. MacNeal has made Iris the tougher of the two twins. This is a woman with spunk, in a time when women were expected to be prim and proper. Poor Rose with her scarred face is more of the mouse. Louis is wild and free and funny and sweet. Silas is dark and slimy. The story tells us not only of these people, but also of a time when life was not so easy for most. There is suspense and terror in this book. It is not all paintings and beauty. MacNeal gives us a dark and twisty tale to follow.

4 stars on Goodreads


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