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‘The Doll Factory’ is a guilty pleasure wrapped around a provocative history lesson

I’ve missed subway stops to finish a book, but this is the first time I almost missed a plane. The final chapters of Elizabeth Macneal’s delightfully creepy novel kept me screwed to my office chair as my wife sent irritated texts from the airport.

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But Macneal delivers even more. “The Doll Factory,” which is already a hit in England, offers an eerily lifelike re-creation of 1850s London laced with a smart feminist critique of Western aesthetics. It’s a perfect blend of froth and substance, a guilty pleasure wrapped around a provocative history lesson.

The whole story takes place at a time of exhilarating discovery and invention. All of London — from royals to street urchins — is awed by the construction of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, “a turning kaleidoscope” where the wonders of the world have been assembled. Advances in industrial technology mirror equally revolutionary changes in social attitudes.

One of the many people enthralled by the Great Exhibition is an ambitious young woman named Iris. But the future that stretches out before her is mired in dismal servitude. Iris is stuck painting little faces in a dank doll shop owned by a mad old woman. Only her secret nude painting late at night offers her any momentary thrill.

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And so Iris might have stayed, feeling illicit and smothered, had she not caught the eye of several young men about town. Macneal deftly paints her fictional heroine into the colorful lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, those radical reformers, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who strove to reinvigorate the arts. They strut through these pages radiating all their brash brilliance, fragile enthusiasms and comic eccentricities (including their fondness for wombats). When they spot Iris sitting in her doll shop, one of them — a fictional member of the Brotherhood named Louis Frost — knows instantly that she must model for him. Though it’s a scandalous career move, just a shade away from prostitution, Iris defies her family and runs off to sit for Frost. Her only condition: He must teach her to paint.

“Her life was a cell before, but now the freedom terrifies her,” Macneal writes. “There are times when she longs for the enclosed familiarity of her previous life, because this expansive liberty seems like it will engulf her.”

But this new liberty is compromised in ways that Iris will soon comprehend. What develops is a fascinating portrait of a talented young woman trying to negotiate the impossible sexual standards of her era: To acquire the skills she needs, Iris must endure society’s approbation, and to enjoy the romance she craves, she must keep her talent subordinate to her lover’s.

Her “exquisite disgrace” may seem like a modern feminist parable dressed up in period costume, but Iris’s predicament and her success are inspired by the real-life story of Lizzie Siddal, who famously posed for John Everett Millais’s “Ophelia” and later married Rossetti. In fact, Siddal makes a brief appearance in these chapters, too.

Macneal is a sticky-fingered artist, lifting figures she needs from history and art. You’ll catch a touch of “Jane Eyre” and read a bit of John Ruskin. Iris befriends an adorable little pickpocket straight from the imagination of Charles Dickens — and there’s Dickens himself, railing in the newspaper against the Pre-Raphaelites. It’s all part of the trompe-l’oeil effect of Macneal’s magical storytelling, which enables real and fictional characters to step together right off the page.

This exuberant re-creation of London is fascinating, but it wasn’t Macneal’s feminist critique of the Pre-Raphaelites’ aesthetics that almost made me miss a flight to California. Credit for that goes to a taxidermist named Silas, whose story slithers along underneath the tale of Iris’s liberation. Silas sells preserved birds and mice to London artists while imagining that someday his little menagerie of curious creatures will earn the respect of England’s greatest scientists. Naturally, his shop is full of stuffed and pickled specimens, which doesn’t seem alarming in and of itself, except that “he likes to talk to his creatures,” Macneal writes, “to make up histories that have landed them on his slab,” And the stiff little mice on a shelf next to his bed are dressed in tiny costumes. So cute!

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But that charming idiosyncrasy is only the first of his peculiarities. He’s stuffed tight with delusions of grandeur and fetid grievances. The longing he still feels for the lost girl of his youth initially calls forth our sympathy — and then something very different. Like some classic Edgar Allan Poe character, his perfectly reasonable introduction gradually simmers to a full-on boil of criminal insanity. When he sets his sights on Iris, she has no idea that he’s been constructing in his imagination a whole diorama of their romance — a tableau he’ll pursue with alarming vigor.

All this gothic horror is drawn in deliciously lurid tones, but what’s even more satisfying is how effectively Macneal integrates the disparate elements of her story. Having escaped the doll shop to model for the Pre-Raphaelites, Iris discovers that she has exchanged painting dolls for being one. For all their progressive ideals about sexual freedom, these young artists seem determined to keep imagining beautiful women imprisoned, drowned and immobilized in their paintings. They offer, in a sense, only a more elegant presentation of the stuffed and mounted animals that Silas sells.

Whether Iris can find the courage and the language to critique the Pre-Raphaelites’ work provides the novel with an unusual element of intellectual suspense. But what Iris experiences with her admiring taxidermist seems to arise from a much earlier artist: Hieronymus Bosch. And that story is one hell of a trip.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts

The Doll Factory

By Elizabeth Macneal

Atria/Emily Bestler. 362 pp. $27

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