Chloë Ashby visits the home of the potter and author Elizabeth Macneal.
It's easy to identify Elizabeth Macneal's house in east London: the windowsill is lined with succulents sprouting from an assortment of striped and spotted pots. She started with one evening class a week. “I produced many deformed and far from watertight pots,” she tells me, “and then I gradually got better.” Fortunate, since we're currently sipping tea from two of her hand-thrown mugs.
Inside the house, Macneal's other passion quickly becomes clear (besides her silver-haired cats, Monty and Claude). A pair of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves brim with novels, and a stuffed milky-white mouse is hooked onto a shelf. “I call him Walter after Walter Potter, the 19th-century taxidermist,” says Macneal. Her debut novel, The Doll Factory, is set in 1850s London and features its own collector of lifeless creatures and skulls.
Born and raised in Edinburgh, Macneal was a bookish child who went on to study English literature. “That was when I started writing seriously, I suppose, and taking myself seriously as a writer.” When she graduated she became a management consultant and, every day for five years, she woke up at 5am to write before work. “In that time I wrote two novels that were turned down by publishers,” she says. “Every author has their failed-novel story so I tried to rationalise it and see it as part of the process.”
For Macneal, that process involved a Masters in creative writing at UEA. “I needed to go back to the basics and have the confidence to write what I wanted to read.” By now her pottery was good enough to sell and upon graduation she could survive on it. “They collided accidentally,” she says. “The writing was always deliberate, the pottery more by chance.”
The Doll Factory tells the story of Iris, an aspiring young artist with copper-coloured hair and a twisted collarbone, and Silas, a troubled taxidermist. The setting: London, 1850. The Great Exhibition is being erected in Hyde Park and, among the crowd, the pair meet through a toothless street urchin called Albie. When the Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost asks Iris to model for him, she agrees to ditch her job at Mrs Salter's Doll Emporium on one condition: he teaches her to paint. She soon finds herself in a vibrant world of gold-framed paintings, peacock feathers and those who season their speech with phrases like critics', Royal Academy' and exhibition'. But since meeting Iris, Silas has developed a dark obsession.
Victorian London comes to life in The Doll Factory, from the frock-coated gentlemen with their varnished boots to gas orbs which stutter and flicker. Like Silas's collection, the novel dances between the beautiful (a butterfly bauble) and the grotesque (conjoined puppies). It makes our nostrils tingle: this is a cityscape of boiled sugar and burnt caramels, as well as piss-soaked puddles and drifts of horse dung.
Macneal describes herself as a Victorian fiction nut. She wrote her dissertation on clutter in 1850s literature and her pre-existing knowledge of both the Great Exhibition and the Pre-Raphaelites meant she didn't have to do much research upfront. “There was a distance between my research and the book, which I think enhanced the atmosphere and the narrative.”
As she wrote, however, she re-read the poems, letters and journals of the Pre-Raphaelites: “I used their wit in that way.” She consulted maps of London when a character walked from Gower Street to Colville Place handily, many were reissued at the time of the Great Exhibition and studied up on Victorian taverns and brothels. She revisited Charles Dickins and Henry Mayhew.
Macneal had long been preoccupied with the Pre-Raphaelites and particularly Lizzie Siddal (John Everett Millais' red-headed Ophelia). She considered writing a fictionalised biography of Siddal but felt constrained by the biographical boundaries, so she shelved the idea that is, until the character of Silas came to her during a visit to The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities in Hackney. “It's basically a museum of the macabre,” she says. There's a stuffed lion, a two-headed lamb, a human skeleton. She began to think about what kind of person might accumulate, display and derive meaning from such oddities. Her answer: Silas. She weaves real characters, including Siddal, in with those she has imagined. “I realised I could explore her trajectory through a fictional character who I could manipulate emotionally.”
Writing and pottery coexist for Macneal. “Writing is so intensely mental that I often find I can't do it for long periods of time,” she says. When she's had enough, she'll revert to her studio a slate-grey shed with big patio doors at the end of her garden and throw. Pottery is a more physical outlet mechanical, almost, allowing her mind to wander. “I need it to be quiet when I'm writing, and very tidy.” Her studio, on the other hand, can be chaotic, and she listens to audio books as she works: Vanity Fair by George Thackeray played on repeat while she was writing The Doll Factory.
Writing a novel can feel like an endless, sprawling task. “Unlike a mug”, says Macneal, which is more tangible in the short term. Still, sitting across from a tower of her freshly printed hardbacks, it seems the wait has been worth it. “I threw everything that interests me into this book,” she says, “to the extent that I didn't know whether it would find a publisher because it was so whacky and offbeat.” More than that, it's a thrilling novel that weaves together themes of art, love and obsession. Speaking of which, we hear a tapping and find Monty pawing fanatically at the door. “Oh, he's found a fly,” says Macneal. That fly won't live long.
The Doll Factory is published in the UK by Picador and by Emily Bestler Books/Atria in the US on 3rd September 2019.
Words by Chloë Ashby.