I have seen this much written about, much praised slice of dark Victoriana compared with books like The Collector, The Crimson Petal and the White, and Fingersmith. Though I don’t think this book is in that class, I can see why the comparisons have been drawn, and it holds a dark and compelling story that has much to say.
At the centre of the story is Iris Whittle, who spends her days working at a Regent Street doll shop, painting features onto china faces, and her nights in the cellar where she secretly works on her own art. She wants more from life, but she has ties and she doesn’t know how she can move foward.
Iris fall into the line of sight of two men, and each of them in attracted by her appearance and sees a way to use her to achieve an ambition of their own.
Silas, Reed is a taxidermist and the proprietor of a shop of curiosities. When he sees Iris he is reminded of a long lost childhood friend, and he comes to believe that she was put in his path for a reason and that she was made for him.
Louis Frost, a fictional member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, is out in London with Dante Gabriel Rosetti and John Everett Millais, and when they visit Silas’s shop in search of props, he is complaining that he cannot find the right model for a new work.
Silas, eager to make an impression on his customers, tells them about Iris. They visit Regent Street, and they gaze at her through the window.
He agrees, thinking that the request is just a girlish fancy, or maybe a way to see how much he really wants her; but in time he realises that she has talent and ambition. Louis begins to see Iris in a different way; and to value her for much, much more than her appearance.
But when the painting of her is exhibited Iris feels that she has become nothing more than an object to be gazed upon by men, and that she has been trapped in a golden frame.
Meanwhile, Silas’ obsession with her has been growing. He has been watching her, and creating an idealised picture of a woman who will adore him and fit perfectly into his life.
When they meet for the second time Iris doesn’t remember Silas, but she learns that he remembers her very well and that he has been making plans …..
The story that Elizabeth Macneal tells is cleverly contructed, evocatively written, richly detailed, and it has much to say.
I could see the depth of research, I could feel her love of her subject matter; and she brought her fiction and real history together in a way that felt completely natural and right.
The use of three narrators was a very clever choice. It shines a light on those three, and each of them has a distinctive point of view, and brings something different to the story and the things it has to say.
(Equally importantly, it allows their to be uncertainly about other characters who are seen only through the eyes of others.
I loved that Iris had her own distinct, original artistic vision, and that the story explored how a woman might develop that vision and find a place of her own in a world that would offer few opportunities and impose many restrictions.
I warmed to Albie, a young man who had to live on his wits, and who saw much of what was happening as he dealt with both the taxidermist and the doll shop. He could so easily have been a stereotype but he wasn’t, he was a real boy and whose story explored life at the very bottom of Victorian society.
And I was convinced by the portrayal of Silas, whose obsession was clearly rooted in disappointment, bitterness and entitlement. Again, a character who could have been a stereotype but was real man whose words and whose actions could be understood.
My reservations about this book have nothing to do with the characters. They are that there was much that was predictable, that my expectations, and that the final act – though it was compelling, though it felt right – stretched credulity a little too far.
But the book as a whole works.
it’s a wonderful mixture of historical fiction, art history, love story and psychological drama; and it speaks profoundly as it entertains its readers.