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Monday, March 30, 2009

The Journal of Dora Damage - Belinda Starling

There are a few plausible ways authors can give women in historical fiction the amount of freedom they need to take part in an interesting plot. Their characters can be born rich or come into money somehow; they can be part of a family where the parents or husband has reasonably progressive ideas for the time they live in; they can live outside of society (for example prostitutes) or they can be required to flout decorum because of poverty. Belinda Starling chose to use this final device in her debut (and sadly last) novel ‘Dora Damage’. It’s intriguing to see how poverty could actually free women in Victorian times as well as trap them, as it required them to work in order to feed their family.

The novel’s heroine Dora has ignored the signs that her husband’s bookbinding business is failing in order to preserve harmony and because she feels that business affairs are her husband’s concern. Of course the collapse of his business has a huge impact on Dora as it is Dora’s job to feed her family, keep the house respectable and keep the creditors sweet without any money. As her husband can no longer work due to crippling arthritis Dora decides that she and Jack, the apprentice, must try to run the business themselves. This, and the decline of her husband as he becomes addicted to the o which soothes his pain, allows Dora a certain amount of extra freedom, which results in a plot that would have shocked the Victorians. Through her work Dora becomes involved with almost everything the Victorians would have publically deplored: working women, pornography, and much more.

‘Dora Damage’ contains a clever mixture of the fear of poverty and the gothic horror found in so many Victorian novels. The fear and the vice soaks the novel in a rich coating of dark imagery which is deliciously satisfying to read. However there was a point in the novel where it begins to feel as if Starling has overburdened her story with transgressions. She crams in everything that would have angered the public face of the Victorian realm, when removing a few of the more inconsequential ones might have allowed readers to focus on those that really matter to the main plot. However all will be forgiven when readers reach her gruesome, final taboo breaking moment, which has the power to stun readers who may think they have been desensitized by their exposure to so much vice throughout the novel.

So that finishes off my official participation in the Victorian challenge (hurrah a challenge finished). I still wish I’d managed to read a novel written in Victorian times, and it’s still my ambition to read ‘Great Expectations’ by the end of the year. I feel that ‘Wives and Daughters’ was not the Gaskell for me right now, perhaps I would have been better starting with ‘North and South’ or ‘Cranford’, but that would mean buying new books (which would be bad, right?). I look forward to seeing those who took on more ambitious goals for this challenge posting reviews up at the blog.



I would like to know: was Belinda Starling also a bookbinder or had she previous knowledge of the technics before writign the book or did she work hard on ther documentation research?

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