I had previously read about The Journal of Dora Damage over at Danielle's Blog quite some time ago and I remember thinking then that this was a book I would be interested in - just can't get enough of books set in Victorian England/London! So, it has taken me a while but I have finally gotten around to reading this one - and am very glad that I have.
Dora Damage is a young woman married to a book-binder, living in a poorer, working class area of London in the 1860's. As the novel begins we see that Dora's world is consumed by the care of her husband, her house and especially her young daughter Lucinda who has regular seizures - an illness that for that time period was considered worthy of institutionalisation.
Dora's world changes when her husband Peter becomes so affected by his rheumatism that he is unable to work any longer. In order to ensure that they don't go without food, and so they are able to repay their numerous debts, Dora begins to take on book-binding work from some pretty unsavoury characters and she becomes the book binder herself. Dora finds herself drawn to the work - she is particularly good at it - and even though the nature of the work she is binding (expensive pornography for the upper classes) causes her some moral dilemmas she relishes her new role as worker for money.
The book is particularly detailed in relation to the book binding trade and even the nature of the housework that Dora is required to complete. I would normally find this quite intrusive and boring but it only helped to connect me more to Dora and her way of life - I felt her connection to the book binding work and the immense satisfaction she received for completing the various tasks involved in completing a book.
The nature of the difference between the expected roles of women and men in this era is clearly displayed. Dora is shunned by her community for taking on this work and it is assumed by many that she is selling more than just her work as a book binder. The book contains many reflections by Dora on her awareness of these differences between the sexes:
Finishing is the way the book presents itself to the world and gets noticed; the forwarding is more like the women's work, for one never notices it unless it has been shoddily done. (p. 82)
If I stopped to think too carefully I would probably say that at times the plot of the book felt a little contrived and forced - some events that happened made me stop and think "would this have actually happened?" but overall this did not detract from the reading. I was totally engaged with Dora and what would happen to her - I wanted her to triumph in the end!
Thetruly sad thing about this book is that the author, Belinda Starling, died suddenly soon after completing the book at the age of 34. A true tragedy for her family and the reading public who will not be able to enjoy any more of her great writing.