We selected The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling as our January book way back in July – it is quite large and we thought we would need two months to read it (we don’t meet in December hence the two months). We picked it mostly based on the life of the author – sadly she died shortly after publishing this novel (she was only 34! and had two small children).
This novel is set in Victorian England in the time before adequate sanitation – Dora’s mother died from Cholera. She is married to Peter Damage a book binder who is suffering from a disease that makes him retain fluid – his hands are so swollen he can no longer work. She also has an epileptic daughter, Lucinda. Peter disappears one day – the rent is due plus Dora finds out that Peter has borrowed from a money lender at an horrendous rate of interest. She sells what she can, pawns other stuff, but it is not enough. She finds a book sellers card and determines to visit him to see if she can get any binding business. Dora possesses a knack of binding books in a manner appropriate to the content – this leads to more commissions and ultimately the extremely lucrative job of binding pornography. She works for Sir Jocelyn Knightley a man who thinks of himself as a renaissance man. He is interested in science, medicine, Africa, the differences between races, etc. Sir Jocelyn has the ugly Charles Diprose act as his intermediary – he is a book seller and a very unattractive character. Sir Jocelyn provides Dora with bromide crystals (which seem to stop Lucinda’s epilepsy) and laudanum for Peter. He also provides lavish gifts of food, clothes, etc.
Sir Jocelyn’s wife, Sylvia, is a member of a society which tries to help free slaves. The society purchases a slave and brings him to England. Sylvia wants Dora to give him a job in exchange for a regular sum of money – Dora can’t resist. Charles Diprose is horrified and tells Dora she must find a way of binding Din to her (find a secret and black mail him with it).
Eventually Dora is disgusted by the pornography, which gets more graphic as time goes on and confronts Diprose in his shop – unfortunately there is a raid and she is forced to hide away in attic for several hours. She can’t extricate herself – they know she is doing the binding and not Peter plus they threaten Lucinda.
I won’t reveal any more of the story…
The social history aspects of living in Victorian England are well written – the tap only works at certain times, it’s difficult to get anything clean (with all of the soot and smog). The characters are well written and the story fascinating. Having said all of that, I struggled through the middle third and only kept reading because it is my bookclub book.