"The Journal of Dora Damage" was a book I picked up due to the cover rather than the title which sounded a bit strange and childish. The cover is quite pretty and decorative, with a small shop sign in the middle. It's a picture of a corset and the text reads "Damages Bookbindery - bindings of any kind". This attracted me into picking it up and reading the synopsis.
The Dora Damage of the title is the wife of a bookbinder in Victorian London and the book is written in first person narrative. Dora struggles to be the perfect wife and mother that her husband Peter wants her to be - the Victorian ideal of "the angel in the house". Dora's troubles are infinitely worsened however, as she realises that Peter's hands have become too crippled with arthritis to work.
Dora decides to take over her husband's bookbindery and run it with Peter instructing her and with the help of his apprentice, Jack. Peter is very resistant to this as it's not seen to be respectable for a woman to work and would emasculate him in the eyes of society. Dora, however, is determined to save them and their young daughter from the horror of the workhouse.
In her pursuit of work Dora stumbles upon a moral morass and finds herself binding highly illicit pornography for a set of aristocratic patrons. She is well paid for the work but the aristocrats and their agents will do anything necessary to protect their secret.
I found this quite an absorbing read, although from the outset I thought a book about bookbinding in Victorian London sounded a bit dull. We have several elements going on in this book such as the place of women in the Victorian period, the repressed sexuality of society (resulting in illegal pornography), the debate going on over slavery - outlawed in Britain, still prevalent in America, and the absolute power of the aristocracy over those beneath them.
Dora is caught between her wealthy patron Sir Jocelyn and his equally forceful wife Sylvia and is pressured by both to keep secrets from the other. Sylvia pressures Dora into taking on a recently freed slave from America as a worker in the book bindery.
Sylvia is shown to have everything she could ever want materially but is described as being bred to be ornamental - she has no real power within her marriage.
Dora is likewise caught in her marriage to Peter in that he continually tries to bend her to his will, even when it would be detrimental to them as a family. He would rather go to the workhouse than live with the shame of his wife running his business. The neighbourhood they live in are shocked by Dora's "scandalous" behaviour in doing so.
Repression is a big theme in this book as Dora herself is repressed by Peter and society at large. Women have two choices in this society - wife and mother or whore - there is no middle path. Peter is disgusted by sex and disgusted by Dora's apparent interest in it. Nearly all of the characters have their own secret and are repressed by the black and white thinking of the time.
There is a bit of a romance angle that is unfortunately quite predictable but as I don't enjoy romance in my books I tended to speed read those parts. The ending of the book did seem a bit silly and seemed to rush towards a conclusion after moving quite sedately beforehand.
There are a quite a few twists in this book and I didn't always see them coming. I thought this was a very well written and thought out book. It was exciting and interesting but was always bringing out new issues to consider - the place of women in society, class differences, opium addiction and even the treatment of disease.
Dora is a sympathetic heroine who struggles with her own natural impulses and tries to straightjacket herself into the role society demands of her. Repressed sexuality is everywhere in this book, from Dora herself to the illegal pornography she is binding for the aristocrats.
I really enjoyed this book, both for the story itself but also for the depth Belinda Starling brought to it by introducing several different strands. The characters are well fleshed out and generally sympathetic whilst some are truly grim. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fiction set in the Victorian era.
Unfortunately the author Belinda Starling died shortly after completing this book, her debut novel. There is a note on the author included at the back of the book written by Starling's brother explaining the circumstances of her unexpected and untimely death.
This review is also posted under my name on Ciao.co.uk