De­li­cious Vic­to­rian fare

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Chris­tian House

WITH its quar­tos, rec­tos and fo­lios, the lan­guage of book- bind­ing lends it­self to the nov­el­ist’s pal­ette. It’s a ter­mi­nol­ogy rich in tac­tile plea­sures and po­ten­tial metaphor for a writer. So it’s a joy to find Belinda Star­ling do­ing it jus­tice in The Jour­nal of Dora Dam­age , not least by sit­u­at­ing this idio­syn­cratic pro­fes­sion in the equally emo­tive world of Vic­to­rian Lon­don.

In a clammy cor­ner of Lam­beth in 1859, within earshot of the clat­ter­ing rails of the Ne­crop­o­lis Rail­way, Dora Dam­age strug­gles to keep her fam­ily out of the work­house.

Her hus­band, Peter, pro­pri­etor of Dam­age’s Book­binders, has suc­cumbed to crip­pling arthri­tis, leav­ing Dora and their epilep­tic five- yearold daugh­ter at the mercy of loan sharks and lo­cal gos­sip.

Dora is a mod­ern wo­man, more in tune with bib­lio­philic con­cerns than the call of scut­tles and sheets, which serves only to en­rage her hus­band, whose hu­mour and sen­si­tiv­ity have be­come as gnarled as his hands.

Sal­va­tion of­fers it­self in the swag­ger­ing form of Sir Jo­ce­lyn Knight­ley. This slimy aris­to­crat com­mis­sions Dora to swathe his vol­umes of il­le­gal pornog­ra­phy in taste­ful jack­ets. At first our hero­ine takes to her new role like glue to a back­board, pro­vid­ing or­nate il­lus­tra­tions and be­spoke ma­te­ri­als to cam­ou­flage the true na­ture of her wares.

How­ever, as the threat of bank­ruptcy is lifted, Peter slips into an opium haze and a phil­an­thropic so­ci­ety im­poses a freed slave, Din, on her work­shop. When Sir Jo­ce­lyn’s manuscripts be­come un­bear­ably dis­turb­ing, the Faus­tian pact comes un­der con­sid­er­able pres­sure.

Bol­stered by the suc­cess of Michel Faber and Sarah Wa­ters, among oth­ers, the thriv­ing genre of Vic lit finds it­self at­tract­ing new tal­ent. Star­ling doesn’t fail to take the ba­ton and run. Char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion is as sharp, and the prose, from the X- rated firky­toodling and lal­ly­gag­ging to the sub­dued ban­ter of those in ser­vice, is ripe and be­liev­able.

This book rev­els in con­found­ing ex­pec­ta­tions: in one de­light­ful mo­ment Din cor­rects Christo­pher Mar­lowe’s trans­la­tion of Ovid’s Amores in his slow, cot­ton- pick­ing drawl. The nar­ra­tive re­frain is don’t judge a book by its cover. There are fre­quent nods to Dick­ens but the au­thor nei­ther de­scends into pas­tiche nor over­lays the story with con­tem­po­rary mean­ing. In­stead, she con­cen­trates on the hu­man tale un­fold­ing at the in­ter­sec­tion be­tween the af­flu­ent and the ef­flu­ent.

It pro­vides a sen­si­tive trib­ute to those who worked among the leather dust and ad­he­sive fumes, for­ever dodg­ing the twin per­ils of pul­monary dis­ease and penury.

It is the sad­dest post­script to this lovely pub­li­ca­tion that its au­thor died last au­tumn. She was 34 and left a young fam­ily.

I hope it is of some com­fort to them that she also left be­hind a novel as dizzy­ingly de­tailed as one of Dora’s bind­ings, for it is cer­tainly no mean achieve­ment. The Spec­ta­tor

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