The Journal of Dora Damage, by Belinda Starling

dora

This first, and sadly last, novel by Belinda Starling is an impressive achievement, and had she lived she would surely have written even better ones.  The basic scenario is familiar: a Victorian woman is downtrodden, but she has reserves of industry and intelligence, and when circumstances force her to, she shows that she is able to compete in a man’s world on equal terms, but at personal cost.  Starling has taken this template and peopled it with an enjoyable cast, paying close attention to the details that exemplify Victorian values in all their complexity.

It is 1859, Dora is married to Peter Damage, a bookbinder, and they live next door to the workshop in Lambeth, in an area balanced between respectability and poverty.  Dora is essentially a skivvy (a term that dates from 1902 but she would have recognised it) administering to her husband’s needs with no thanks, while also caring for an epileptic daughter.  We know early on that she is better than this: she is intelligent and resourceful, but constrained by the mores of the time.  Unfortunately for the family, Peter is suffering badly from arthritis, a disadvantage in someone who needs to be precise with his hands.  It is not long in this precarious world before their descent into poverty begins, the rent overdue and loan sharks circling.  Dora’s trips to the pawn shop stave off disaster for a while, but the future is bleak.

However, as the daughter of a bookbinder, Peter having been her father’s apprentice, Dora knows something of the business.  Overcoming the scepticism and jealousy of her husband and the misogyny which permeates society, a world where a woman out alone is considered morally suspect, she begins to repair the family fortunes in order to secure the future for herself and her daughter, while massaging her husband‘s battered self-esteem as he falls ever deeper into a drug-induced stupor.

In the process, however, she becomes involved in producing fine bindings for pornography.  For someone who thought clitoris was somewhere in Africa it is a steep learning curve.  Unfortunately such slopes can be slippery and the demands on Dora increase, including taking on an escaped American slave as an apprentice.  She finds that getting into the illicit trade is easier than getting out, as she tries to extricate herself while finding that she is subject to socially transgressive desires of her own.

Dora navigates conflicting demands on her loyalty, not always with elegance or understanding, but what would have been misfortune for most is, given Dora’s flair for producing clever bindings, and her willingness to cross a line of propriety, an opportunity to make her way in a man’s world.  She’s that classic feisty woman you know will prevail from page one, whatever is thrown at her, however deeper she is immersed in a world of decadent aristocracy and masculine entitlement, where hypocritically a liking for pornographic images is cloaked as a scientific interest in anthropology.

The first third of the book could have been tighter, though once through it the pace picks up, and at 450 pages it does not feel overlong.  Many of the characters are broadly drawn and the squalor is laid on thickly, Dickens with extra dirt.  What is more problematic is the transition in tone.  The first half of the book is an examination of the difficulties women faced when their men could not work, and then died; the dangers of genteel poverty when, as Dora indicates, women had to be seen as pure but still had to make their way in a sordid world; when the options available to them were few, poorly paid, and open to exploitation, the double standards of a society that could pretend that women did not work while reliant on their labour, while men fretted that their own rates were being undercut.  The second half descends to a somewhat preposterous melodrama, with a race against time to save a loved one from a terrible fate, climaxing in an unconvincing action scene.

There is a chronological sleight of hand when Dora says that execution for sodomy had been abolished the preceding year.  That occurred in 1861, so the discussion would be presumed to be taking place in 1862, but then the American Civil War breaks out, which also occurred in 1861, so the conversation could not have happened in 1862.  Most readers won’t be bothered by such an infelicity, but in a novel that prides itself on its ability to evoke the reality of life in London, it grates slightly.

The conceit of the novel is that we are reading, as the title indicates, the journal Dora began shortly after the occurrence of the events she describes in the 1860s.  There is a postscript by her daughter dated 1902, which says that the MS was dusted off to be published to raise funds for the Bookbinders‘ Benevolent Fund and the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic.  The problem is that there is no way that this book would have been openly published in Edwardian England in an unexpurgated form.  The language allows us to see how far we have come in the last century in what is acceptable for our wives and servants to read.

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