Her eyes, sockets slightly hollowed, contained a loneliness and longing that felt at once familiar. It was as if an invisible cord united them.
Iris Whittle wants freedom, not to endure her sister Rose’s jealousy ‘until, at last, some scrawny boy fattens her with child after child’, slaving over laundry, cooking ‘rotten offal’ and tending infants ‘mewling with scarlatina and influenza and God knows what else’. Iris and her twin sister Rose apprenticed at Mrs. Salter’s Doll Emporium, spends her day painting the delicate dolls faces, a ‘drudgery’- a dark skill at times painting custom dolls from daguerreotypes of children, who may or may not be dead, ‘commemorative dolls’. She wants a way out of her life, but with a sick twin sister who relies on her, is marriage the only way? Youth and beauty is currency, but her passion is art, sketching since she was a child.
As The Great Exhibition “of the works of industry of all nations” is to be held in the Crystal Palace now being built in Hyde Park, London- it’s promise is calling out to Iris. It is a world for artists like herself and what is more thrilling to someone whose life is nothing but toil, feeling like slavery? Then there is Silas and his specimens of the dead, his taxidermy shop, with aspirations for a museum, where he can share his world with the masses. If he could perfect preservation, freeze moments in time, rid the stench and rot of death…if only he could have better specimens, a thing so marvelous that others would be mesmerized, why then he would be someone! It’s never enough, these paltry commissions, not for a man of his ambitions! The average man has no idea the skill, the genius his creations require, no. It takes a discerning eye to appreciate the beauty, the art! These specimens are about life! Why do others only see the macabre? At least he has ‘street brat’ Albie to scavenge for curiosities! It’s nothing for Albie using a hemp sack as his “Dead Creatures bag”, anything to make a shilling, a boy has gotta survive these mean London streets, even if you peddle death.
The 1850’s London our characters are living in is a far cry from the upper crust Victorian delicacy we think of- the fashion, the fine sensibilities, in The Doll Factory we have an atmospheric England with it’s more offensive smells and underbelly, the dark side of all those gentleman and their baser urges. Albie and others of his ilk turn to crime with limited choices, either pickpockets or prostitutes- their brutal worlds, never dreaming of the sheltered lives of children born to finer families. This is the darkest part of the novel, thinking of children up to their eyes in filth and the scum of the times. We love to look away from the ugly reality of the past, it’s hard to stomach, imagine living it. I’m the type watching Pride and Prejudice and thinking ‘wow, I wonder how awful the lives of the people serving the main characters were’, thinking ‘oh yeah, my luck I’d be the peasant, no time to pine after Darcy’. Not that I don’t love Jane Austen, I just think Victorian Times were more about the spread of infectious diseases like smallpox…syphilis… consumption- ah the past.
Back to the novel… it is through Albie that Silas has a most fortunate encounter with the beautiful Iris, honing in on an unusual part of her, awakening his obsession. Fate for some can be a dark shadow hovering, waiting for fulfillment. For Iris, it is her meeting with Lois Frost that is full of meaning, part of the PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), a man who trained at the Royal Academy and feels she would be the perfect model for him. A boon, he will pay her too! She sees this fine bit of luck as the the opportunity to learn how to paint under his tutelage, if he agrees it will seal the deal, her reservations be damned. There are more brave choices for her to make, sacrifices to earn that precious freedom to live as she wants, it could cost her not just her reputation but her family- but she can taste that other life, it’s so close. The threat of ruin isn’t enough to force her to change her course!
There is a thin veil between the present day and dreams for Silas as Iris has been sewn into the very fabric of his future. She longs to be Lois’s treasure, not imagining that she is already one man’s curiosity, the means to fulfillment- who says his visions are mad? Silas is biding his time, losing his grip on reality as each day ticks by. He wants to be taken seriously, he knows in time the world will see him as successful, fine gentleman! One day his work will pay off, then everyone who ever insulted him will be sorry. He is a man struggling with his obsessive desire, disgusted by others vices, while obsessing over Iris, watching, learning everything about her, more familiar with her habits than she herself is. The watching, lurking, waiting- this is how some men are forced to commune, to touch what they desire.
Obsession is shackles of the mind, much like ones used to keep someone in captivity. Silas is a tormented man, one who doesn’t take rejection lightly. She must she let him love her! He just needs her to accept his loyal friendship. She will be that someone who understands, accepts his world, his passion.
Everything is spiraling but that invisible cord, it connects them and everyone who stands between them.
Yes, read it if you enjoy dark historical fiction, and the underbelly of Victorian London. There is a stink of death clinging to the pages, the mad desperation of the lonely and the deception of our own minds.
Publication Date: August 13, 2019