The Journal of Dora Damage
Dora Damage has a name straight from Dickens, and in fact her tale would not be out of place in that author’s works, although perhaps written on the distaff side. Dora is the wife of Peter Damage, a bookbinder, and theirs is not a love match. Their daughter Lucinda was conceived on one of the rare times they were intimate (Damage having made Dora scrub herself with bleach before he touched her), and she was born with epilepsy. Damage himself suffers from crippling rheumatoid arthritis that is interfering with his livelihood. Dora cannily plays to his ego while surreptitiously taking over the business herself.
In 1860, a woman bookbinder is unheard of, so Dora must pretend to the outside world that her husband is running the business while she tries to drum up additional work. When one of her clients sees through her ruse, the price he extracts is that she bind pornography for a group of dilettantes. Starling walks a fine line between displaying Dora’s repulsion and her reluctant fascination by a world that is denied her by her husband. The poverty in which her family lives and even the smell of the bookbinding materials are so tangible as to be worthy of Dickens.
Starling has written an engrossing and unsettling book, which serves to remind the reader how few rights women had in Victorian London. Dora achieves her modest rebellions, but always with the sense of looking over her shoulder; the effort it took to keep her family safe, clothed, and fed made me ache for her.