In this “sharp, scary, gorgeously evocative tale of love, art, and obsession” (Paula Hawkins, bestselling author of The Girl on the Train), a beautiful young woman aspires to be an artist, while a man’s dark obsession may destroy her world forever.
The Doll Factory is a sweeping tale of curiosity, love, and possession set among all the sordidness and soaring ambition of 1850s London.
The greatest spectacle London has ever seen is being erected in Hyde Park and, among the crowd watching, two people meet. For Iris, an aspiring artist of unique beauty, it is the encounter of a moment—forgotten seconds later—but for Silas, a curiosity collector enchanted by the strange and beautiful, the meeting marks a new beginning.
When Iris is asked to model for Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her to paint, and suddenly her world expands beyond anything she ever dreamed of. But she has no idea that evil stalks her.
Silas, it seems, has thought of only one thing since that chance meeting, and his obsession is darkening by the day...
This reading group guide for The Doll Factoryincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In 1850s London, the Great Exhibition is being erected in Hyde Park , and, among the crowd watching the dazzling spectacle, two people meet by happenstance. For Iris, an arrestingly attractive aspiring artist, it is a brief and forgettable moment, but for Silas, a curiosity collector enchanted by all things strange and beautiful, the meeting marks a new beginning.
When Iris is asked to model for Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees, on the condition that he will also teach her to paint. Suddenly, her world begins to expand beyond her wildest dreams—but she has no idea that evil is waiting in the shadows. Silas has thought of only one thing since that chance meeting, and his obsession is darkening by the day.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. When we think about obsession in the novel, Silas is most likely the first character who comes to mind. Yet many of the characters have something that drives them and that they obsess over. Think about who is obsessed with what. What do these obsessions have in common? Where lies the divide between healthy and harmful obsession?
2. Charles Dickens, a contemporary of the Pre-Raphaelites, is mentioned by characters early on in the novel. What themes does THE DOLL FACTORY share with novels written by Dickens? What writing techniques does Elizabeth Macneal employ that are similar to those of Dickens?
3. What are the different societal constraints our main characters work against to achieve their goals? Do any of these limits still exist in our era? Which ones seem to have stayed in Victorian times?
4. Of all the imaginary pieces of art described in the book, which one would you most like to see? What about it interests you?
5. Why does Iris feel such affection for Albie? Do you feel the same way about him?
6. How are mastery and control expressed in the novel? How do these concepts differ from each other, and which characters exhibit them?
7. How does the slow revelation of Silas’s true relationship to Flick affect the novel? At what point did you realize how dangerous Silas was? What details does Elizabeth Macneal give us early on to indicate that all is not what it seems with Silas?
8. While the painting of Guigemar’s queen is the most prominent example, many of the paintings described mirror the characters’ experiences. Google a few of the paintings and see how they are reflected in the characters’ arcs.
9. Do you sympathize with Rose? Does your opinion of her change throughout the novel?
10. Courtly love is a medieval literary tradition in which a knight proved his love for a noble woman through a series of tests, and the knight and his intended lady are presented as idealized figures. It has been an influence upon many artistic movements and was a key interest of the Pre-Raphaelites. Reread page 156, where Louis explains why he is beginning to tire of it. In what ways does courtly love play out within the novel? Who upholds its ideals and who counters them? How do you see the ideals of courtly love reflected in discussions of relationships and gender in our own times?
11. Women are consistently “captured” in the novel, whether literally or figuratively (Guigemar’s queen, Iris’s likeness in the painting, Flick and Iris by Silas, Rose by Mrs. Salter, even Guinevere the wombat). Discuss the various constraints put upon women in the novel and how they do or do not break free.
12. Considering the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s dedication to truth (“taking truth to nature”—or representing the world accurately—was one of their tenets), what do you think of Louis’s omission about his wife and child? Do you think Iris’s reaction was fair?
13. What did you make of Albie’s death? What were the narrative advantages of this?
14. With its emphasis on freedom, medieval culture, and courtly love, and the name itself, is there a place for women in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood? To counter, consider how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood also gave space to women, both in the novel and historically, to become artists and not just muses.
15. What do you make of the review of Iris’s painting at the end of the novel? What does it imply about the lives of Iris, Louis, and Rose? Why do you think Iris included Albie in it? How does it tie in with the themes of the novel, particularly of objects and symbolism?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Research the history of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and its members. Choose one of their paintings described in THE DOLL FACTORY and give a report to your book group. Be sure to include its size, the materials used, any historical or mythological allusions in the work, qualities that make it pre-Raphaelite, and contemporary reactions to the artwork. Don’t forget to bring a photo to show everyone!
2. Iris’s story can be compared to the Pygmalion myth, in which the sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with one of his creations. Many writers have used this Greek myth in their work. One of the most famous works is George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Have your book group read it, or watch the musical adaptation, My Fair Lady. Though THE DOLL FACTORY is set a few decades before Shaw wrote his play, there are many similarities in its exploration of class mobility and gender roles. Discuss how Iris is similar to Eliza Doolittle. How are Louis and Silas similar to Henry Higgins? In what ways do they differ? What other themes do you think both Shaw and Macneal explore?
3. The Pre-Raphaelite movement was not made up only of visual artists, but also writers, and especially poets. Pick a Pre-Raphaelite poet, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti or his sister, Christina Rossetti, and analyze its language, themes, and symbols. As with the paintings you researched, what qualities make the poem pre-Raphaelite? Is there anything in it that reminds you of THE DOLL FACTORY?
Elizabeth Macneal was born in Scotland and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio in her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University, before completing the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship. The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, won the Caledonia Novel Award in 2018. Visit her ElizabethMacneal.com or on Twitter @AsMacneal or on Instagram @ElizabethMacneal