A woman's independence came at a high price during the Victorian Age. The protagonist of Elizabeth Macneal's first novel (The Doll Factory) brings forth echoes of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, although with a completely different flavour.

What were the paths followed in amalgamating the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and a madman’s craft? Both found in a sinister London, a silent protagonist scrutinising the evolution of a plot, which is impossible to put down.

In this interview, Elizabeth Macneal reveals the details of this amazing work that has left us eager for more.

I would like to start by asking you about the development of your book, as it is led by such a charismatic and independent protagonist. What were the challenges of portraying her, as well as XIX century London?

This was an element I considered very carefully. I am a woman writing in 2019, and I used the past as a way of amplifying my concerns about the present. I wanted to explore the objectification of women and the forces which hold a woman back, which try to push her into a smaller and smaller space. The novel, really, is about Iris’s desire to escape this. I think that this is a narrative which transcends time and place; it doesn’t matter that it’s set in London or a hundred and seventy years ago – my hope is that readers in 2019 in Spain or in the UK or in Korea will be able to identify with this story.

However, I had to accept that the ideals I wanted to see on the page were simply not possible – to create a feminist protagonist would have been anachronist, and actively unjust towards the female artists of the age who fought and struggled against real obstacles. However, I believe that human nature has not changed drastically over time – and spirit and humour are certainly nothing new, even if one century may condemn or oppress it more than another.

So, rather than having my protagonist call out situations in a modern way, we as readers can perceive injustices she knocks against as unfair. Iris’s response is occasional acceptance, or as visceral anger without the ability to articulate how she is feeling, or even if she is justified in her response. So, too, do those around her condemn her – her parents and sister will not speak to her again, and a charwoman snubs her. I wanted her to yearn for more, without the expectation of bettering herself – and that puts her in a position to transcend her situation in a surprising way.

In fact, Iris’s movement from working in a shop to modelling and becoming a painter was directly based on the trajectory of Lizzie Siddal, and so I was keen to reflect on the real challenges a woman would have faced in this situation. I returned to the original sources as far as I could – diaries and letters. I think that contemporary culture has a tendency to believe the Victorian’s ideals of themselves, particularly with regards to women – who are often cast as pure and mute – whereas, really, I found we had a great deal more in common than many think. Queen Victoria, for example, clearly enjoyed sex, and documented her enjoyment of it in her diaries; a night with Albert, ‘was bliss beyond belief! Oh!’

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painting technique is a recurring leitmotiv in your work. Why do you think they were particularly suitable for the story?

I’ve been fascinated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood ever since I first saw the painting Ophelia – their aims were to be radical, to return to the vivid colours, detailed compositions and realism of the Medieval period. They were ambitious, young, witty, colourful, and kicked against the status quo, and there was something very intriguing about that mentality. I was interested in the contribution of the women associated with the movement, whose contribution has been eroded over time, and I wanted to explore that.

I thought carefully about what characterised the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, so that the book could have their specific essence, rather than that of any group of painters. Their paintings are often very narrative led, and so too does The Doll Factory have a strong narrative pull; their paintings focus on clutter, and so objects and objectification were key themes, especially with the curiosity collector Silas Reed. I even thought about the frequent use of mirrors in their art, and used this theme not only literally but to explore distortion and delusion, particularly that of Silas Reed; and also twinning (Iris has a twin sister Rose, whose face is disfigured by smallpox).

More than anything, their paintings are often of idealised women from myth and legend. Whenever I saw these paintings, I thought about the real women who had modelled for them. I wanted to explore this balance between idealism and reality, filtered through the male gaze, in an age where women were pinned down by society’s expectations.

As I mentioned, Iris was inspired by Lizzie Siddal. I wanted to write about how a life change as seismic as that would have felt – glorious, yes, but also terrifying. It was both an elevation and degradation, where modelling was seen as a little better than prostitution.

Passion, torment and cruelty seem to be effortlessly amalgamated. Was it difficult to keep a good balance amongst them?

It was certainly something that I had to keep my eye on. Following on from the previous question, Pre-Raphaelite paintings often portray dark and tragic stories (e.g. the drowning of Ophelia) in such vivid and beautiful paintings. I very much had this balance in mind. I wanted to write a book that was full of contrasts, with many themes or settings igniting or sparking off others (in a similar way to the functioning of the multi-perspective narrative mode).

This informed my decision to create a curiosity collector, Silas Reed, as a second strand to the novel. Taxidermy drew out the darker side of the act of being painted – e.g. objectification, display, the sense of preservation where the model ages but the painting doesn’t (Lizzie Siddal wrote haunting poetry about this). And so even the beautiful is tainted by the awareness of decay. The name of Iris hints at a passing bloom. The rookeries of St Giles press against the genteel artist quarter of Fitzrovia.

Generally, too, this balance reflects my outlook on life; that happiness is amplified by an awareness of its inverse. The novel documents a thrilling time for Iris – she finds herself flung into the decadent world of artists, where her hopes and dreams coalesce. So, too, as with all ambition, is there an awareness that this is a greater height to fall from.

In a recent post you mentioned The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities as one of the sources of inspiration for The Doll Factory. What fascinates you the most about it? Could you also let us know more about other possible influences?

I found this museum by chance – I stumbled into this small basement museum to avoid a rain shower. There was a taxidermy lion in the corner wearing a Russian hat and the skeletons of sea creatures suspended from the ceiling. I became fascinated by the mind which collected – which felt the desire to amass and preserve and display. I read Viktor Wynd’s book and was interested in his declaration that collecting is a sickness; that a collector can never have enough, and will always hunger for more. Silas came out of these impulses – his loneliness, his inadequacy, his impulse to objectify, as well as his entitlement to possess anything he wanted. Once I had understood his character, I started writing. This mindset permeates the way he sees the world.

As well as this, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on clutter in the 1850s culture. Silas fitted into this perfectly. The object-strewn canvases of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; the construction of The Great Exhibition, a symbol of London’s ambition as it showcased all that was new in commerce and industry; and beneath it, the characters who are driven by ambition and a love of the craft. Silas dreams of opening his own museum; Iris dreams of being an artist; and even the toothless street urchin Albie just dreams of owning a set of false teeth. It’s when these ambitions start to impact each other that the pace ramps up.

It seems impossible to imagine that this book was not written by an artist. Do you think being a potter gave you an advantage in writing it? May we already ask you something about your future literary projects?

Thank you! I definitely think it helped. When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with painting, particularly self-portraits. I had to give up art because it encroached on my other subjects too much. Looking back at those paintings, they barely resemble me. That made me think about the act of being portrayed in a certain way, but one which did not necessarily reflect reality.

So, too, am I interested in craft, and the making of things, and the often obsessive mindset which accompanies this. As I mentioned, The Doll Factory is about objects, and in my job as a potter is to make things, many of which may outlive me, and which will have different resonances to different people. A mug might be symbolic of a relationship to someone.

But beyond this, there was so much for me to learn and research. For example, I have never done taxidermy. I thought about how uniquely an artist might see the world – in terms of perspective and colour. I enjoyed learning more about the practice of painting, e.g. that canvases were bought from Brown’s on High Holborn, or that pigments were called madder, gamboge or bone black.

My second novel is set in a Victorian circus, and explores themes such as wonder, belonging, illusion, reality, female rage and display. My hope (and belief) is that I don’t have to have experienced an acrobat’s life (and I’m as inflexible as a plank) in order to build a compelling and convincing world.