Picador wins 14-way auction for 'heart-stopping' debut

Picador wins 14-way auction for 'heart-stopping' debut

Picador has triumphed in a 14-way auction for a "heart-stopping and gripping" debut novel set in the Pre-Raphaelite circle of Victorian London.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal was won days before authors such as Carol Ann Duffy and John Cooper Clarke headlined at a Picador showcase in a subterranean railway in London.

Sophie Jonathan, senior commissioning editor at the Pan Macmillan imprint, acquired UK and Commonwealth rights for The Doll Factory and a second novel by debut author Macneal from agent Madeleine Milburn in a “hotly contested” 14-way auction. The title had scooped the Caledonia Novel Award for an unpublished or self-published manuscript earlier this month and will be Picador’s lead debut fiction launch of 2019.

The novel is set in London in 1850 as The Great Exhibition is being erected in Hyde Park, as two people meet among the crowd watching the spectacle. For Iris, an aspiring artist, it is the encounter of a moment – forgotten seconds later, but for Silas, a curiosity collector enchanted by the strange and beautiful, the meeting marks a new beginning. When Iris is asked to model for Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her to paint, and suddenly her world begins to expand, to become a place of art and love. But Silas has only thought of one thing since that meeting, and his obsession is darkening.

Elizabeth Macneal (© Jonathan McQuitty)

Jonathan described The Doll Factory as one of the “most heart-stopping, gripping books I have ever read”.

She said: “Every character is brilliantly realized and I know no heroine like Iris – the way she pushes up against the world in which she finds herself made her captivating for me. This is a novel of myriad themes – art and self-expression, love and friendship and sisterhood, the balance of power between men and women, and the sort of dark obsession that sees passivity as a mark of female beauty – and because of that, it is a novel that demands discussion and debate.”

Macneal, a potter based in Limehouse, East London, said: “I've been fascinated by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for years, and their verve and wit has been a joy to bring to the page. While I started this novel relatively recently, I’ve been writing for over 10 years, and I’ve poured so much of my love of writing into the character of Iris and her pursuit of painting.”

Milburn, who was also a judge for the Caledonia Novel Award, said the title had her "bouncing off the walls for days".

"It’s a truly captivating story that will appeal just as much to historical fiction fans as people who don’t think they read historical," she said.

There is also a “string of offers from US and international publishers who are equally enthralled by Elizabeth’s talent," Milburn added.

Macneal, a Scottish born University of East Anglia graduate, attended the Picador showcase on Tuesday evening (27th February) at the Mail Rail near the Postal Museum in central London, along with Poet Laureate Duffy and special guest John Cooper Clarke. Clarke’s memoir and poetry collection were bought by the publisher in an auction, it was revealed last Wednesday (21st February).

Author Nell Stevens, Picador’s senior commissioning editor Sophie Jonathan and author Jim Crace at the showcase

Harvest author Jim Crace was also presented, along with Olivia Laing, BBC radio broadcaster and author Matthew Sweet as well as Bleaker House author Nell Stevens, A J Pearce of Dear Mrs Bird. Poet Kate Clandy introduced poems from schoolchildren and there were specially created films from Kate Tempest and Tim Winton revealing highlights from their upcoming titles. The evening was compered by author and former doctor Adam Kay, whose award-winning medical memoir, This is Going to Hurt, has sold 94,425 copies according to Nielsen BookScan.

Picador publisher Paul Baggaley revealed he was as “proud of this list as any other” at the showcase, which drew in crowds from the book trade despite freezing temperatures. Baggaley also revealed how excited he was to have won the 14-way auction for The Doll Factory “after convincing Elizabeth she should be a Picador author”.

He said the event as "a wonderful mix of booksellers, media and bloggers". 

"I was especially pleased that in our 21st year of publishing poetry we were able to highlight a list which is so broad in range and with such stars of present and future," he said.

Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Picador’s assistant editor Kish Widyaratna