Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Review: Queen Victoria and the Men Who Loved Her

As you might recall back in 2014, Robert Parry published a book of biographical sketches of Queen Elizabeth I (reviewed here) and now I have the pleasure of reviewing a second such book, this time concerned with the gentlemen in the life of Queen Victoria...

I think most people will feel that they have grown rather more familiar with Queen Victoria over the last couple of decades, what with this...

Her Majesty Mrs Brown (1997)
...being followed by this...

The Young Victoria (2009)
...not to mention this...

Victoria and Abdul (2017)
...and endless quantities of this...

Victoria (2016-present) what else can we be told about Queen Vic and her loves?  Well, often it's not what you're told, but how you are told it and Queen Victoria and the Men Who Loved Her provides a perfect dip in and out of the various characters in the Queen's long and eventful reign.  

Sir John Conroy (1836) Alfred Tidey
'Love' is quite a complicated term; some of those mentioned in the book did indeed love Victoria in the traditional sense, but some, like the odious John Conroy were in the Queen's life, arguably, because they loved themselves.  Did he have the Queen's best interests at heart? He would have no doubt argued so, but history has not been kind to him or Victoria's mother who allowed the interference (I am reminded somewhat of Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour).  Life and love is contradictory sometimes, and Conroy was certainly as important to Victoria as some of the men she thought kinder of, but by including him it is possible to see the impact he had in her life and find echoes in some of her later, and happier, relationships.

Benjamin Disraeli (1868) W. and D. Downey
I'm not sure why I have such a soft spot for Disraeli but I'm in good company as Queen Vic liked him too, apparently.  Maybe we both share a thing for a man in a velvet jacket.  Either way, his wit and charm is something we sorely lack in politicians at the moment so enjoy a bit of escapism to when our Prime Minister was also a novelist, and people liked him.

John Brown and Queen Victoria (1868) W. & D. Downey
Much has been made since the release of Her Majesty Mrs Brown back in the late 1990s, of Queen Victoria's 'love affairs' with men after the death of her beloved Albert.  What those episodes tell me is that even though she was Queen, the most important person in the country, people felt that they could challenge her about who she spent time with, as if any man, even a servant, would somehow exert power over her, a mere woman.  I don't for a moment assume that Queen Victoria was impervious to folly, but echoes of Conroy's control over Victoria must not have been lost on the Queen, and I wonder if that was part of the reason she dug in her heels.

Queen Victoria (1887) Alexander Bassano
Despite this being a book about her relationships, I was struck by how solitary her life was, because in the end, she was Queen, alone.  This is reflected in the narrative conceit of the book, a traveller alone, seeking company in a group of talkative, knowledgeable strangers.  Many of the relationships in the book are ones that were not exactly of Victoria's choosing, for example Conroy, but also those of her Prime Ministers.  Others were ones that happened by accident, especially so in the case of her servants.  The love of her life was only in her life for a small amount of time in proportion to the time she spent mourning him.  Her relationships with her children and grandchildren is reflected in her position as not only a mother, but also the Monarch, and perhaps she gets as harsh a judgement as working mothers seem to still receive.  We still, it seems, are fascinated in Victoria, the Queen and the woman, and how exactly she managed to be a figure of such power and still subject to such mixed and tender emotions.

Queen Victoria and the Men Who Loved Her is available now from Amazon UK and USA

Friday, 28 June 2019

Review: Black Americans in Victorian Britain

I'm sure a good number of you own the catalogue from the 2005 exhibition Black Victorians and have marvelled at the number of people of colour that populate nineteenth century art, from the lovely Fanny Eaton...

Fanny Eaton (1860) Simeon Solomon little Prince Dejatch Alamayou...

Basha Felika and Dejatch Alamayou (1868) Julia Margaret Cameron
...and much like women's history, our appreciation of black history is getting the long overdue attention that is needed. I was delighted and intrigued therefore to be sent a copy of Black Americans in Victorian Britain by Jeffrey Green.

Recently, my daughter asked me when slavery ended in the UK, and we spent rather along time saying 'well, that's a complicated question...' but on the face of it, within the UK, slavery had ended by the time Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837 (with the caveat of the Indian Slavery Act of 1843). American slaves had to wait until 1865 before they saw any change in their position (again, even then it is very complicated).  Maybe then it isn't surprising that escaped slaves such as Moses Roper travelled to the UK to lecture on their experiences and publish books on the subject. 

The extraordinary Ellen Craft
The story of Ellen Craft is remarkable - she and her husband, fellow slave William, escaped Georgia in 1848, with her dressed as a white man and her husband pretending to be her servant.  They finally settled in England in 1869.  These true stories of heroism and survival make Green's book both harrowing but also heartwarming that the brave and resourceful Crafts could share their stories where so many were denied the chance.

Uncle Tom and Little Eva (1866) Edwin Longsden Long
Of course, black American narratives were not unknown to the British reader (after a fashion), with the massive popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin of 1852 and the resultant paintings, plays, and even ornaments celebrating the wise and patient Tom often with the cherubic Eva. The full pervasiveness of the novel can be seen in Rossetti's nickname for William Morris, 'Topsy', a character in the novel.

One of my favourite things about the book is that Green  makes you look at something that you thought you knew from a different angle.  I spend a fair amount of time reading about Merton Russell-Cotes, founder of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery in Bournemouth, but at the same time as Merton was being a somewhat colourful character in Bournemouth, in Boscombe (now a part of Bournemouth) a gentleman called Thomas Lewis Johnson wrote and published Twenty-Eight Years a Slave.  He died the same year as Merton and was apparently as well known as the Russell-Cotes family.  Previously when I thought of the Bournemouth of the turn of the twentieth century, I had never considered that it would include such an important figure, and now have to find out if he and Merton ever met.  That is a pretty decent book that makes me want to do more research.

The American Slave (1862) John Bell
Like most Pen & Sword publications, this is an eminently readable and detailed book, with some good illustrations and further reading suggestions.  While I have written about the Victorian imagery surrounding slavery (often a bit dubious and featuring a lot of bosoms), it is refreshing and sobering to read accounts of people who escaped to our country to educate us, then become an important and appreciated part of our society. It was also interesting to read how the Victorians greeted such refugees from slavery and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by the levels of respect paid, and quite rightly so.  It is a pleasure to end the week on such an enlightening note.

Black Americans in Victorian Britain by Jeffrey Green is available from Pen and Sword Books and all good books shops.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Clementina Margaret Hull

 Today's post is by way of gathering some research in one place to help others.  The subject of this post is Clementina Margaret Hull, a now-forgotten watercolourist, but while researching her, I have found some interesting things about her and her family. It all started when Mr Walker showed me a painting and I asked 'And what do we know about the painter?' Flap all, apparently...

The Thief (c.1860-70) Clementina Margaret Hull
 I'll come to the subject of this rather smashing watercolour in a moment but first of all, here is the story of Miss Clementina Margaret Hull and her family. 

Dr George Montgomery Hull (1794-1878) had been born in Ayrshire before training in medicine and surgery at Edinburgh.  He was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh but headed south, possibly looking to specialise in diseases of the wealthy.  He met the lovely Susanna, fifteen years his junior, and they married around 1840.  The life of a young doctor involved a bit of travelling around, as their first children, twins Agnes and Susanna (named for her mother) were born in the outskirts of London in the early months of 1843. Clementina was born a year later, followed by Mary Ann (1845), George (1847) (all born in Surrey) Caroline (1849) (Norfolk) and William (1851).  By this time the family had been living in Tonbridge Wells in Kent but the medical practice was doing so well that George moved his family to Kensington, to 1 St Mary Abbot's Terrace, a stone's throw away from Lord Leighton's House (or what would be).  Just the sort of place to find lots of ill rich people...

The success of Dr George Hull was probably what inspired his son and namesake George junior to become a doctor. Mind you Dr George jnr did not exactly have a long and happy life.  He married Isabel Ogle (splendid name), the daughter of John Connell Ogle, an artist from Essex. Isabel and George jnr moved to South Africa, where they married in 1875.  Tragically, in 1878, the following report appeared in the newspapers back home - '12th August,thrown from his horse and killed in Queenstown, South Africa, George Askew Hull MRCS, son of George Hull MD 89 Holland Rd, Kensington'.  He might be dead but rest assured his father has a house in Kensington, so that's okay.

Back to Clementina, and she decided that the artist's life was the one for her.  In the 1861 census both she and her older sister Susanna were attending art school, and she got an honourable mention in the press reports of the Dudley Gallery exhibition in 1866.  In 1872, the London Daily News mentioned that Clementina had received an award at the South Kensington School of Art prize-giving for her paintings of flowers and watercolours from nature.  We don't seem to have a date for The Thief above but it is an obvious display of her talent for painting from nature, as that is a rather lovely magpie.

Susanna, however, did not follow her sister into the artistic profession after her training.  Her twin Agnes became a teacher of literature and music, teaching in St Aubyn's School in Weymouth before marrying a train engineer and settling in Hampshire.  Susanna possibly was inspired by her twin to get into teaching but it was the education of deaf children that interested her. In 1880, she was one of the British representatives at the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf in Milan.  Susanna opened her own school for deaf children at the family home in St Mary's Abbott Terrace in Kensington, moving to Warwick Gardens in 1869.  Clementina continued to live with her sister and so I wonder if she taught art at her sister's schools. By 1901, Clementina was living on her own but in the census she is listed merely as 'living on her own means' so it is possible that her ambitions as an artist had ceased.  She died in a nursing home in Guildford in 1911, aged 66.

So, what is The Thief all about?  The painting comes with a subtitle - 'Then it chanced in a nobleman's palace, that a necklace of pearls was lost.'  These words are from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem Evangeline: A Tale of Arcadie which tells the story of two lovers who are separated only to find each other at the end of the man's life.  What's all that to do with a jewellery-obsessed magpie?  Well, actually the bird appears in a story told by a notary in the poem proving how God is just even if men are not.  What Clementina Hull painted is actually the scene that we do not witness in the poem.  As the subtitle says, in a nobleman's palace a necklace went missing.  The maid was blamed and hanged for the crime in the shadow of a giant, ironic statue of Justice.  After her death, God struck the statue with lightening and there in the ruins was a magpie nest with the necklace in it.  As Clementina was a painter of nature rather of literary subjects I wonder if she just fancied painting a magpie and found a fancy quote to go with it.  Whatever the reason, I would love to know more of the mysterious Miss Hull and see more of her work...

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Review: A Victorian Lady's Guide to Fashion and Beauty

I'm not one for women's magazines.  I never really enjoyed reading what was in fashion or whether flats or heels are more attractive or whether a cream that costs over £100 per pot will make me look 30 again (doubtful).  However, am I interested in what the woman of 1850 was slapping on her chops to make her look alluring?  Of course I am!  

Many thanks to Pen and Sword for sending me this gem of a book, because now I feel ready for the nineteenth century, style-wise.  Starting in the 1840s, author Mimi Matthews takes us through the every-changing silhouette (something that once you know, will infuriate you every time you watch a costume drama), what goes under, in terms of corsets and undies, and what goes over, with capes, bonnets and all manner of accessories.  I once wore a poke bonnet; it's much like when you put blinkers on a horse...

Bonnet from the National Trust Collection
We all knew the dangers of wearing a corset (as my daughter asked, where on earth is your liver??!!) but the crinoline also posed terrifying risk, for example this...

A woman in a crinoline is blown off a cliff in 1858.  Apparently.
Honestly, I think the greatest danger of a crinoline is what happens if you sit down in the wrong way and the damn thing swings up over your head which happened to me when I was a bridesmaid in 1981. Moving on.

Preparing for the Dance by Joseph Caraud
This is a lovely book, absolutely filled with details: split between the decades, it's a must-buy for anyone who has an interest in the history of fashion.  It also gives an insight on the lives of women and how the pressure to look a certain way is no different to what we put up with now.  When I was writing A Curl of Copper and Pearl I read all about the lives of seamstresses in the 1860s and the story of Mary Walkley was particularly grim.  At only 21, Mary worked for a court dressmaker, Madame Elise and her apparently classy establishment.  However, the life of even the snootiest stitcher was dire. 

John Tenniel's cartoon for Punch in 1863
The idea that a female industry like dressmaking caused the death of women for the benefit of richer women in a complex one.  As the years tick on, the extremes of fashion are mocked in contemporary papers but who is persuading women to wear tighter corsets or extreme sleeves? Probably the same papers that then mock their folly for the excesses of fashion, just as the media now encourages women to wear very little then calls them rude names when women follow their rules.

Catherine Walters, also known as Skittles, in her riding gear
I really enjoyed the sections on special fashions such as riding gear and holiday fashion.  I always use this image of Skittles who apparently was sewn into her skin tight riding habit when I am talking about Fanny Cornforth's weight. Against 'ideals' like Miss Walters, no wonder Fanny was known as Elephant.  Also, did you know there was special outfits for sport?  I suppose if women had to skip about in physical exertion, they should have a lovely new wardrobe to do it in...

The Tennis Party (1885) John Lavery
This is a smashing book, and as the holiday season approaches, this would be a perfect book for travelling.  There is a section on seaside fashion and the latest in daring bathing outfits! Easy to dip in and out of and packed with fascinating research, this is an essential for all Victorian women and twenty-first century readers.

A Victorian Lady's Guide to Fashion and Beauty is available from Pen and Sword here and from all good book shops.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

At Last, The Love School!

It is a shocking oversight on my part to have been born too late to enjoy the BBC's 1975 Pre-Raphaelite drama The Love School.  In fact until the advent of Desperate Romantics I probably had not even heard of it, and even then, the best I could do is seek out the paperback novel of the series.  Even the little clip of Ben Kingsley and Patricia Quinn as Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal available on YouTube didn't really give me any idea of what it was like.  Imagine my utter, glorious joy in finding out that The Love School was to be released at last!  O Rapture Unexampled!  Anyway, it appeared just about the time of my birthday (which is a smashing coincidence) and so here is my review...

Spread over six episodes, this series traces the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (or to be exact, the big three, together with Morris and Burne-Jones) from 1848 to the deaths of the protagonists...

William Holman Hunt interrupts Millais while he is painting Cymon and Iphigenia
We are hastily introduced to young, handsome John Everett Millais (played by Peter Egan) and his rather clumsy, noisy best friend William Holman Hunt (played by a superb Bernard Lloyd).  The closeness of the pair, their mutual excitement and enthusiasm powers us through the birth of Pre-Raphaelitism.  I had forgotten how delicious young Peter Egan was.  Moving on.

Ben Kingsley *is* Rossetti!
We meet Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the midst of his large, loud, Italian family.  They are a little 'Dolmio family' but you get the idea that Dante Gabriel is a boisterous, attention-seeking baggage who is charming for the first five minutes and then is pouty and exhausting, played with insane skill by Ben Kingsley.  The dinner where Holman Hunt is exposed to the Rossetti family and spaghetti is utterly delightful, and it is lovely to see a laughing, quick-talking Christina Rossetti rather than a sour old maid.  It was also good to see James Collinson...

Collinson being sparkling at dinner
Yes, Christina, we would not have married him either.

That lovely couple, the Ruskins...
Also, you'll be delighted to meet that thoroughly pleasant couple, Mr and Mrs Ruskin who have absolutely nothing amiss in their marriage.  I was somewhat startled by how jolly the pair look, and how not like an elderly pervert he appeared.  Well done BBC.  John Ruskin (played by David Collings) is the fairy-godmother of the PRB and wonderful paintings start appearing. Enter Miss Siddal and a bath-tub...

The bath-tub scene was so undramatic, but in a good way.  There she is in the bathtub and we slowly notice that not all those candles are lit anymore and she is somewhat shivery.  Cut to the painting and the end of the episode. I was really impressed as it seems we can't mention Miss Siddal without the words 'bath-tub' coming hot on her heels but this is not a series about the women, so there is no need to over-dramatise moments of victimhood. Hurrah! Sort of.

The Ruskins and their house guest on holiday...
By episode 2, 'An Impeccable Elopement', it is clear that the bonds of brotherhood have somewhat frayed.  Hunt and Millais remain close but Rossetti is too busy keeping Lizzie caged up in Chatham Place painting an oddly bad portrait of her.  I have to say that the quality of the art they used for the series is, by and large, astonishing, leading me to suspect that some of it is actually the real thing.  This is especially true of the works in their massively intricate frames, but we'll come to that.  Anyway, off goes Millais and the Ruskins to Scotland, where Millais and Ruskin play improbable badminton and the cracks in the Ruskin marriage begin to show.  I appreciated that although Ruskin is ultimately the villain, there can be ascribed blame on both sides.  Effie pouts at not being paid attention and Ruskin is far more excited about art than his wife. Out and about in Scotland, there are fades in and out of pictures from Millais' letters, such as...

The awful midges!

The sweetness of Millais and the desperation of Effie make a winning combination and by the time she's cutting his hair it's all over.  Peter Egan's over-emotional artist reminds you that he is so young and inexperienced and prone to crying and so it's tempting to see him as collateral damage in the Ruskin marriage but we all know how that ends.

Annie Miller and William Holman Hunt
Meanwhile, back in London, living the Pre-Raphaelite dream, William Holman Hunt has discovered a stunner and is preparing to delouse her.  Looking like a bag of turnips and sounding like Nancy from Oliver, Annie Miller (played by Sheila White, who actually played Nancy's best mate, Bet, in Oliver) is a challenge to Hunt's ideas of how grateful a 'rescued woman' should be.  She makes him jealous and he makes her pose awkwardly as a ruined woman.  He also has plans to go off to the Holy Land and leave her in the care of Hot Fred Stephens...

Please leave me in the care of Hot Fred Stephens
We all know how well that ended but special mention has to be made on how much David Troughton looks like F G Stephens.  It is uncanny and I salute that level of care.  Also, Bernard Lloyd looks really like Hunt once that beard kicked in during Episode 3, 'Seeking Bubbles'.  Sheila White makes a very confrontational Annie Miller, not playing along with old Hunty at all, only as far as it suits her.  You know there is no way she is going to put up with his schemes, but the pairing of her with The Scapegoat painting does make you wonder exactly why all the men rush to blame Annie when everything goes wrong.

Queen Vic gets a Hunt brought to the palace for a closer look
I really need to know if they used the real paintings in the series as the frames are spectacular.  I'm wondering if back in the mid-70s people would have missed the paintings from the galleries for a few weeks, rather than the production team having to notch up these masterpieces.

Name that painting!
Talking of the paintings, such a lot of care and love has gone into the recreations of how they were created, leading scenes like the above. Millais' outdoor painting of The Blind Girl is wonderfully imagined with impromptu rabbit shooting.  The beauty of Millais' early work and the care and attention put into his conversion from 'academy' art to Pre-Raphaelite makes it deeply touching when, at the end of a long career of, dare I say, 'sloshing' for profit and a title, he has a moment of clarity in a side-room of his exhibition.

I am sick and neglected and bored and sad...
We have to wait until episode four, 'Remember Me' in order to cover Rossetti's love affair with Elizabeth.  As I said, no grand drama was made out of Ophelia and so all we have is poor Lizzie stuck in the claustrophobic Chatham Place.  Two things caught my attention in her miserable scenes.  Firstly, the room has several red geraniums dotted about looking pathetic which immediately reminded me of this...

Thoughts of the Past (1859) John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
Again, I am left with the impression that the people responsible for The Love School actually love Pre-Raphaelite art and want to ram as much as possible in.  Talking of Stanhope, he crops up as Rossetti takes his band of new friends off to Oxford to paint a massive mural.  The debating chamber is an impressive set and it is where we really get to know this pair...

Topsy and Ned!
I think the thing that hacked people off the most in Desperate Romantics was the depiction of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.  I was a bit nervous when Ned and Topsy bustled in to Rossetti's art class to meet their hero, but I need not have worried.  David Burke as William Morris (looking oddly like a chunky Will Ferrell) and Kenneth Colley as Ned Burne-Jones start nervously and in awe but grow in confidence and charm as they find their feet as artists, husbands and fathers.  The portrayal of William Morris especially made my heart sing.  There was none of the bumbling cuckold, but a rounded (no pun intended) character of genius and passion, in love with his ideas, his wife and his life but with an explosive temper, quickly diffused.  Instead of showing him made a fool of by Rossetti and Jane's affair, his relationship with Georgie made me raise my eyebrows a few times and it was clear that people loved him and gave you decent reasons why.  The Morris marriage was not seen as the hollow, miserable sham it is often spoken of (based entirely, in my opinion, on Rossetti's vision of it through his art) but a tested marriage, with feeling as well as conflict.  

Rossetti and that look
 Possibly my most favourite moment has to be something so nebulous that I swore I had imagined it the first time but it absolutely caught my breath.  Having taken his band of acolytes to Oxford and presided as their king, Rossetti holds an evening of poetry at which Morris is expected to perform.  Morris does so with aplomb and the fellowship of the debating chamber are there applauding and cheering for Topsy.  Ben Kingsley's smile freezes then fades a little as he realises his student very much has the capacity to outshine him.  It's just a look, but something in it makes you know that poor Topsy will be taken down a peg or two imminently (as he is).  However, William and Jane outlast Rossetti and his influence.

The Morrises at Home in 1882...
I was astonished at how Jane and Rossetti's story was merely a background to the Morris marriage and Jenny's health concerns.  The Love School definitely make the link between Morris's temper and Jenny's (very visceral) fits which may or may not be true but definitely had a link in Morris's own imagination.  The writers also brought us Political Morris and Kelmscott Press Morris, together with a very Irish George Bernard Shaw and perfect Aubrey Beardsley.  It is in the depth we trace of these characters that we find their essence; in essence Morris was an idealistic, good man but Rossetti, not so much.  It is Morris' death we end on, not Rossetti's.  Sometimes I do feel we are told that Pre-Raphaelitism began and ended with Rossetti and my goodness me, it was such a treat to be told an alternative.  Mind you, there was one thing I was definitely watching for...

William Michael Rossetti and Fanny

Fanny!  You know me, I am utterly Fanny-centric and so imagine my delight in episode 5 'Beata Beatrix' when a grief-struck Rossetti was comforted by the wonderful Elephant.  Not a nut in sight!  As Ben Kingsley declared, it was rather smashing to see the lovely Lumpses and her smashing bum.  The beautiful April Wilding played Fanny perfectly, hovering around as Rossetti photographed Jane at Cheyne Walk and presiding over his dinner party like a disgruntled duchess.

Elephant and Rhino hold a dinner party with Charlie Howell (left), but look at the wall!
Jane Morris murmurs that she is jealous of Fanny as Fanny never has to be Beatrice, some idealised dream woman.  Fanny gets to be real whilst Elizabeth and Jane are merely ghosts.  I obviously would have wanted more, but Wilding played her with dignity and the interactions with William Michael are awkward and tense but with an understanding that both of them are fighting over the role of nanny to a petulant, adorable, destructive child.

So, what didn't I like?  Well, despite using mostly the original art works, unlike Desperate Romantics's sometimes dodgy copies, we were surprised with this oddity...

What on earth...?
Puzzling indeed. Also when Hunt was arguing with Millais over his straying from the true path of Pre-Raphaelitism in the late 1850s, it is argued that if you want to reproduce life in detail then photography is the obvious route and these are shown...

Hang on a second...
Julia Margaret Cameron! In late 1850s?  Um, no, especially as some of the photos are form the 1870s but it is a reflection of the fact that Colin Ford had saved the Herschel album for the nation in 1975 and she was hot news.

Rossetti, Jane, and those photographs
So, in conclusion I loved it. I was extremely nervous before watching it because obviously the production values are nothing like we are used to.  I grew up watching 1970s and 80s BBC dramas with wobbly sets and dodgy sound and this is no exception.  Another of my favourite moments is when Effie and Millais are discussing their ever-so secret love by the waterfall where her husband is posing, but the noise of the water is so great they have to bellow at the top of their lungs.  All this aside, the Pre-Raphaelites are being brought to life by some top notch actors and a first-rate script.  If you are looking for it there are layers and layers of double meanings and hints and references to be found.  When Lizzie stood sadly by Chatham Place window, neglected, and complained all she could see was the Elephant and Castle I squealed as I took that as a reference to her knowledge of Rossetti's cheating with Fanny.  The endless flashes of different pictures is quite something - were people aware of this art and The Love School just putting it in context, or did people not know it and it was a chance to say 'Look at it all!'?

Either way, it was worth the wait and will be the series I turn too when I want my Pre-Raphaelites on screen.  Enjoy.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Review: The Doll Factory

As you will no doubt remember, back in February last year The Doll Factory, the debut novel of Elizabeth Macneal, was the subject of much hub-bub after it was acquired by Picador after a 14-way auction.  What caught my attention was the subject matter - the Pre-Raphaelites.  Picador were good enough to send me a review copy in the autumn but I wanted to delay my review until you were able to pre-order a copy and so, a few weeks before it is released, here is my review...

A quick summary of the plot - The year is 1851 and sisters Rose and Iris work in Mrs Salter's doll emporium. Both have problems with their physical selves - Iris has a twisted collar bone and Rose is deeply pock-marked - and they spend their days creating perfect little figures for rich families.  On the sly, Iris pursues her dream of being an artist, painting herself at night by candle-light.

Walter Potter's Kitten Wedding.  I know...
 Into her life comes Silas Reed, collector of specimens and stuffer of animals.  He has an eye for a beautiful creature, and Albie, his snaggle-toothed urchin assistant has just the one for him.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and that other bloke
At the same time, Louis Frost is looking for a new model.  He's one of those Pre-Raphaelites we all know and love (I do feel sorry for Walter Deverell who always gets replaced by some made-up bloke) and he's on the look out for a model and sends a relative in to find him a shopgirl.  Sound familiar?

Rossetti finding Elizabeth Siddal (from Look and Learn)
Following the path of made-up Pre-Raphaelite novels such as The Crimson Bed (2010), Mortal Love (2005) and That Summer (2017), not to mention 'real' Pre-Raphaelite novels like Ophelia's Muse (2018) and Pale as the Dead (2003) (and mine, of course), The Doll Factory brings a lot of the grimy sensibilities of novels such as Crimson Petal and the Rose with urchins, prostitutes and an astonishing array of reasonably priced false teeth.

The Great Exhibition of 1851, with actual flushing toilets and everything
There is a continuing theme of being on display through the book and being your 'display' self, like a doll or a painting - perfect and frozen.  The juxtaposition between the dolls and the stuffed animals is very disturbing, especially as you are not spared any detail of where the animals come from.  Arguably there is a commentary on the Pre-Raphaelites insistance on being 'true to life', but demonstrably not doing so when the single-toothed Albie is dressed in a pretty outfit in the painting, a far cry from his actual existence of hiding under his prostitute-sister's bed as she services clients.

 Macneal has obviously done a lot of research for the novel as it is full to the brim with facts: we have The Germ, wombats, the PRB (please ring bell?) and even a girl who can crack walnuts between her teeth!  Heavens! 

The Proposal (c.1850) F G Stephens
There is also a hint that surface image is not what you think - Iris frets for the first part of the book about her deformity, and then, when it is seen by others, it is not really commented on and certainly does not stop her being attractive to Mr Frost. This might be alluding to the intricate detail of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, obsessing on every little thing but when viewed with a step back, it all seems normal.  The only one who dwells on her collar bone is the obsessive, unable to move anything but closer.

This is not for the faint-hearted as there are some moments that will make you exclaim 'lawks!' and almost drop your sherry, however I thoroughly enjoyed it and read it in a matter of hours.  Perfect summer reading for people who prefer dark obsessions and stuffed mice to sex and shopping.  On the publicity material I was sent it made an illusion to another famous novel which was a massive spoiler as you then knew exactly where the plot was going from the beginning which was a shame because I'm not sure how surprised I would have been had I not known, so I will spare you that.  However, it is a happy inclusion into the Pre-Raphaelite fiction library.

The Doll Factory is out on 2nd May and is available to pre-order now on Amazon (UK) and in August for the USA.