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Authors: Belinda Starling

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The Journal of Dora Damage

BOOK: The Journal of Dora Damage
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The Journal of Dora Damage
Belinda Starling
Bloomsbury Publishing (2009)
Fiction, General

London, 1859. By the time Dora Damage discovers that her husband Peter has arthritis in his hands, it is too late - their book-binding business is in huge debt and the family is on the brink of entering the poorhouse. But Dora proves that she is more than just a housewife and mother. She resolves to rescue her family at any price and finds herself irrevocably entangled in a web of sex, money, deceit and the law.

From Publishers Weekly

Victorian fascination with forbidden sex and science inspires this first novel from Starling, who died last year in Essex, England, at 34. In 1859, arthritic hands and an impatient moneylender force Peter Damage to allow his wife, Dora, to enter the family trade, bookbinding. With assistance from apprentice Jack Tapster and German finisher Sven, Dora masters the art while looking after her invalid husband and their five-year-old epileptic daughter, Lucinda. Business thrives, and then Damage's major clients—dashing Sir Jocelyn Knightley; his crusading abolitionist wife, Lady Sylvia; and their distinguished circle of friends—hire Dora to bind pornographic texts (including
Fanny Hill
The Satyricon
and very low-end material). Dora can only guess at their other illicit activities, having no great romantic expectations for herself until the arrival of Din Nelson, an American slave seeking refuge in London. Starling thus sets up a tale of two cities, contrasting wealthy aristocratic London indulging in secret obsessions with London's working poor struggling through hard times. Not every choice Starling makes works, but she creates secondary characters with Dickensian flair, evokes Victorian pornography without being pornographic and viscerally captures the craft of bookbinding. Starling's heroine is a woman of great energy and courage.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"a richly atmospheric story that is fresh, complex and accomplished work"
—*Los Angeles Times

"the atmosphere is almost tactile and the plot builds to a perfect crescendo of melodrama"
—*Portsmouth Herald

"this historical melodrama artfully evokes the contradictions inherent in Victorian society"**—

The Journal of Dora Damage
is the vivid, stylish, witty story of a woman who refuses to accept her powerlessness. A ‘lady-bookbinder,’ primarily of pornography, the novel’s heroine educates us in the deviance of mid-nineteenth century England: miscegenation, sexual aberration, and the exploitation, sexual and otherwise, of children. Starling illuminates the period, diving beneath the surface of things with vertiginous introspection and consummate poise.”
—Susanna Moore, author of
The Big Girls
and *In the Cut

Praise for The Journal of Dora Damage

The Journal of Dora Damage
is the vivid, stylish, witty story of a woman who refuses to accept her powerlessness . . . Starling illuminates the period,
diving beneath the surface of things with vertiginous introspection and consummate poise’

Susanna Moore, author of
The Big Girls
In the Cut

‘The language of bookbinding lends itself to the novelist’s palette . . . So it’s a joy to find Starling doing it justice
The Journal of
Dora Damage
. . . the thriving genre of Vic-lit finds itself attracting new talent. Starling doesn’t fail to take the baton and run. Characterisation
is sharp, and the prose is ripe and believable . . . she left behind a novel as dizzyingly detailed as one of Dora’s bindings,
for it is certainly no mean achievement’


‘A writer of real accompaniment . . . A well-stitched tapestry of plot, symbol and character’


‘Ambitious and compelling . . . any reader with a taste for historical fiction will relish the fruits of Starling’s meticulous
research, especially on “the obscene underworld of the book trade”’

Sunday Telegraph

‘Starling paints such a vivid picture of Victorian London that when we read of the “golden avenues around Lambeth Palace”
we imagine these familiar areas as they were, and not as we now know them. The contrast between dirt, poverty and illness
and glitz and glamour is keenly evoked . . . The story itself is gripping, and, more importantly perhaps, the characters are
truly convincing’

Time Out London

‘Compelling . . . energy and
joie de vivre
burst out from the covers . . . The more embroiled Dora gets in the world of Sir Jocelyn and his creepy intermediary, Diprose,
the more intriguing and erotic the book becomes . . .
Dora Damage
is a romp’

Daily Telegraph

‘Historical fiction is enjoying a heyday at present, particularly that featuring brave and feisty heroines, and does not come
much better than
The Journal of Dora Damage
. The research is impeccable and, most importantly of all, you care desperately what happens’

Rodney Troubridge,
The Bookseller

‘A thrilling ride . . . Belinda Starling has written an historical novel of great originality. In Dora Damage, she has created
an enormously likable heroine whose battles to assert her independence and freedom will be applauded by every reader . . .
The Journal of
Dora Damage
survives as a memorable and moving testament to her gifts’

Waterstone’s Books Quarterly

‘Peter Carey, Michel Faber, Sarah Waters and, most recently, Jane Harris and DJ Taylor have all successfully recreated the
double-standards and soupy atmosphere of the mid-19th century. Belinda Starling is the latest, in a scrupulously researched,
racy tale set in London . . . Starling skillfully conjures up a dank, deviant London . . . All the elements of the Victorian
city metropolis are faithfully rendered: rampant overcrowding in a terrace resembling “a long line of dirty red siblings”,
the stench of mortality and caricatures such as Diprose the dodgy bookseller, Lucinda, the golden child straight from the
pages of
The Water Babies
, and Mrs Eeles, the morbid landlady swathed in black crepe . . . [Starling’s] bustling, energetic book is a worthy addition
to the ranks of historical fiction’


‘Starling did an enormous amount of research for her debut effort, and it shows. More impressive, she did not let her material
get in the way of telling a richly atmospheric story that is fresh, complex and credible; it is an accomplished work that
augured good things for the author’

Los Angeles Times

‘A wonderfully vivid tale of intrigue, corruption and deceit’

* * * * *
Red Magazine

‘Starling has written an engrossing and unsettling book . . . 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’

Historical Novel Society





First published 2007

This paperback edition published 2008

Bloomsbury Publishing, London, New York and Berlin

Copyright © 2006 by Belinda Starling

The moral right of the author has been asserted

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the Publisher except
in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews

Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 36 Soho Square, London W1D 3QY

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

eISBN: 978-1-408-80645-6

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Typeset by Hewer Text UK Ltd, Edinburgh

Printed in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc

All papers used by Bloomsbury Publishing are natural,

recyclable products made from wood grown in well-managed forests. The manufacturing processes conform to the environmental

regulations of the country of origin

For Mike

‘Lady bookbinders are supposed to be heaven-born geniuses, who will bring back the old order of things. Those who fancy this
are welcome to the delusion; we know better.’

The British Bookmaker
vol 7, 1892–3, p. 7

‘Improper books, however useful to the student, or dear to the collector, are not “
”; they should, I consider, be used with caution even by the mature; they should be looked upon as poisons, and treated as
such; should be (so to say) distinctly labeled.’

William Spencer Ashbee, introduction to
Index Librorum Prohibitorum
, 1877


his is my first book, and I am rather proud of it, despite
its obvious shortcomings. The red morocco lies unevenly
across the boards, the corners have been poorly folded, and
there is a grass-stain on the cornflower-blue silk front panel;
the title on the cocked spine reads
; and across
the leather bands, impressions of single letters entwine with
a bough of botanical impossibility, sprouting pineapples
amidst the oak leaves, acorns and ivy. I made it five years
ago, when I feared what failure would have meant; today I
cut and ploughed the pages, and discovered that at least they
turn well, for the signatures were evenly sewn, and the headband
is pliant but resolute. And now I am writing in it, and
it will be the first book I have ever written, too.

My father used to tell me that before we are born, St
Bartholomew, patron saint of bookbinders, presents our soul
with a choice of two books. One is bound in the softest
golden calf and majestically gold-tooled; the other is bound
in plain, undyed goatskin straight from the tan-pits. Should
the nascent soul choose the former, upon entering this world
he will open it to find that the pages of the book are already
inscribed with a story of an inescapable fate to be followed
to the letter, and on departing it at the time of death, the
book will have so deteriorated from constant consultation
that the hide will be shoddy and the text illegible. But the
pages of the latter book start off blank, and await inscription
by the leading of a life of free will according to personal
inspiration and divine grace. And the more one’s destiny is
pursued, the more brilliance the book acquires, until the
binding far surpasses any hide, cloth or paper binding ever
produced in the finest ateliers of Paris or Geneva, and is
finally worthy of joining the library of human knowledge.

I have no such pretensions for what follows on these pages.
This book is more likely to jump out of my hand, waggle its
finger at me and tease me about the events I am trying to
make sense of, and I shall have to stuff it into a bottom
drawer amongst my stockings and smalls in an attempt to
stifle its mocking. Or it may have a greater sense of responsibility,
and less of a sense of humour, and reveal within it
some approximation of the truth. For whatever one makes
of its curious binding, it conceals the contents of my heart,
as clearly as if I had cut it open with a scalpel for the
anatomists to read.

Chapter One

It’s raining, it’s raining,

There’s pepper in the box,

And all the little ladies

Are picking up their frocks.

first realised we were in trouble when Peter vanished behind the curtain separating the workshop from the house just as
Mrs Eeles came through from the street. She had visited the day before too, asking for him.

‘He was here only a minute ago,’ I said, ‘tending the blocking press, or maybe it was the plane.’ I looked to the others for
confirmation, and they nodded. The ledger he had been working on for some politician or other was still lying on the bench,
a naked manuscript being measured for its new clothes.

Oh, there were other signs, but I had chosen to ignore them until it was too late, until I was faced with too much proof that
business was failing, that we were sinking into poverty, and would soon be destitute. It was like learning to read: one could
pore over the incomprehensible scribbles of a book for years, until one sudden day the ciphers seem to rearrange themselves
on the very page and yield their meaning at last. So it was with the trail left by Peter Damage, and once the truth dawned
on me I could no longer ignore his swollen fingers; the empty tea-caddy on the mantel-piece; the hushed voices between Sven
and Jack whenever Peter left the room; the cursing matches that took place, even in front of Lucinda and me. The most blatant
sign was the one I had chosen most to overlook: that Lucinda’s fits were occurring more often, and with greater severity.

Mrs Eeles had a long, straight nose like a candle-snuffer, which was wrinkling at the smell of glue and leather. Everyone
who came in here did that, although I never knew why. It was a far better smell than the outside stench of London putrefying
in the rain. She looked like a black chicken in her triangular mourning cloak, which dripped over the trestles. Her red face
darted from under her veil as she pecked around the frames and presses with agitation, as if she might find Peter amongst
the leather parings on the floor. She used to preen and offer him her cheek to kiss, and would call him ‘Pete’, or even ‘Petey’,
and tell him to call her ‘Gwin’, and he would chuckle, and wrinkle his round chin down on to his neck out of bashfulness.

She was about to explain her reason for the visit, but as it was five minutes to twelve, a train rattled by outside our window,
and Mrs Eeles raised her hands to command silence.

‘ “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differeth from
another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption; it
is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory; it is sown . . .” ’

We bowed our heads, and while I fingered my mother’s hair-bracelet around my wrist, we waited for the rhythm of the train
of death to cease rocking the foundations of the house. Five years before, in 1854, the London Necropolis &National Mausoleum
Company had opened its Necropolitan Railway adjacent to Ivy-street, to shuttle corpses and their mourners twenty-five miles
down the line to Woking, where they had constructed the largest cemetery in the world. I had heard Mrs Eeles had picked up
the houses at the top of Ivy-street on the cheap, having unexpectedly inherited a small fortune from an uncle in the colonies.
Whoever sold them to her had not understood her proclivities; a shrewder speculator would have charged her more for these
houses, for they were to her as the apartments overlooking Lord’s or the Oval were to a devotee of cricket. The train took
the dead to their graves, but it took Mrs Eeles straight to heaven.

‘ “. . . the first Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.” ’

For Mrs Eeles had an inclination towards death. I do not mean that Mrs Eeles lived in morbid sufferance. I mean that she loved
death with a passion: she delectated in mortification. She loved death the way that a child loves sweets: it made her giddy,
and giggly, and slightly sick.

‘Pardon me for the disturbance,’ she finally said when the moment of death had passed, ‘but there’s the small matter of the
rent outstanding.’ Her eyes swept over the shabby little room, which was harshly lit by two naked gas flames, because I had
taken the lamps into the house to clean again. I hoped that she would find no cause for concern in the way we were keeping
her property. From the battered benches, peeling wallpaper, greasy leather aprons and clammy air, one would be hard pressed
to believe that objects of great beauty were produced here.

‘The rent?’ I said, with genuine innocence. Peter paid Mrs Eeles every quarter; they had their own arrangements, and an understanding
that Damage’s Bookbinders was not to lower the tone of Ivy-street. There had been a dreadful shindy only last summer, when
Mrs Eeles let number six to a group of girls who claimed to be opera-dancers appearing at the Alhambra. She would never have
considered that type as a rule, only that the house had a leaky roof and a draughty cellar, no matter how many workmen tried
to patch it up. But when Mrs Eeles discovered they were what one might call gay, of the seediest type, she threw them into
the street wearing nothing but their scarlet drawers, and hurled their fancy dresses after them. Oh, she could be a devil
with her dander up, but she did see to the drains, unlike other landlords. Besides, I had heard that the late Mr Eeles, who
had been a marble mason, used to throw his boots at her, so Peter always used to tell me that it was fortunate she had tenants
to throw hers at. She and Peter had a special understanding, what with their obsessions with respectability and mortality:
there was nothing that impressed Peter so much as the dignity enshrouding the payment of one’s debt of nature.

‘Apologies for the meddling of you into it, my dear,’ she continued, ‘but I can’t find myself to catch your husband these
days. Not that it’s a worry to me, as you’re honest souls, and I shan’t be throwing you out on to the street, I’m sure, but
it is now three weeks and two days behind.’

‘Is it now? I’ll get Peter to see to it at once,’ I said.

‘And how fare you, young master Jack? Keeping your feet nice and dry in here, I’ll warrant.’

‘Yes, thank you,’ he muttered, continuing to glue down the grey moiré endpapers of a volume of plain, unvarnished calf, entitled,
The Law and Practice of Joint-Stock Companies
. Jack Tapster lived right up by the river, and was flooded out every other year, but the river had been his family’s livelihood
– or deathlihood – ever since his father ran off one night after a prize-fight and never came back. Mud-larks, they were,
and turd-collectors. Mrs Eeles had brought him to us, as, though the Tapsters lacked respectability, they had not just the
whiff but the stink of tragedy about them, which she could not resist. Besides, Jack was often called ‘The Skull’, not only
from the black grimacing skull tattooed on his left bicep, but also owing to his skeletal appearance and his unusual cleverness,
so to her he was a living
memento mori
, which may have had something to do with her favouring of him for our apprentice.

Mrs Eeles didn’t care to look at Sven, who was German, despite him being the best finisher south of the Thames. It was a miracle
he was still with us; he had come over on his
in search of work and had never left. He was fine-tooling around a copper-plate let into the cover of
and Articles of War (Better Government of All Her Majesty’s
; second-in-command after Peter, he was clearly intent on not catching my – or her – eye.

‘Peter must’ve forgotten, strange enough,’ I said. ‘He’s been awful busy, Mrs Eeles, what with Christmas and things.’ I became
aware that I was blunting the needle on the wood of the sewing-frame, and Lucinda was clutching my skirt, pale as candlewax.

Mrs Eeles started to make her way towards the door. ‘Ho, dearie, never need to worry about you Damages, do I?’ she said heartily.
‘You’re a pattern young family.’

Despite the talk about her, I liked Mrs Eeles. She fussed about the wrong kind of people, but she never knew that I’d seen
her from our box-room window, perched on her back porch, knees up outside her hitched skirts, smoking on a pipe. I could not
tell her either, for I did not know how to without letting her know that I did not mind, that I thought she was quite the
screamer for it. Sometimes she even came rent-collecting in her yellow curl-papers, when she must have thought she had already
thoroughly brushed and fluffed her feathers.

I picked Lucinda up, and together we stood at the door and waved Mrs Eeles off into the gloomy drizzle. She lived round the
corner from us, in the house two along from the workshop. Her empire only extended to the top ends of these two streets, where
she could keep at bay the seedier folk that so troubled her sense of decorum, namely Fenians, Italians and Jews. On our side
of the road was a terrace of fifteen houses, like a long line of dirty red siblings with the same narrow faces and familial
features. Each had three floors with two rooms on each floor, one front and one back, plus a basement, except for ours, the
first – or fifteenth – house, number two, Ivy-street, which had no basement but two small cellars, too small to use for anything
other than storing coal and mixing paste. But the house did have an extra room off the ground floor where two roads met (and
where a public-house should have been, were it not for a hiccup of town planning), and it was this room that became the binding
workshop. So far, the neighbours had not complained about our industry, even though we could hear them plain as pewter through
the damp walls.

I smiled at Nora Negley opposite at number one, with her saggy-dugged goat that always strolled into the parlour just when
you were sat there having a cup of tea, and the widow Patience Bishop at number three who never liked visitors, or tea. Agatha
Marrow was leading her donkey-cart up the road to number sixteen; I could see she had a new maid from the poorhouse to help
her, for the last one was carried off by an ague even as she was stoking the range not long back.

‘Marnin’, Dara dearie.’

‘Morning, Agatha.’

‘Wet in’t it?’

‘Wet it is.’

‘It is wet, oh, in’t it wet?’

When times were better I used to give her our laundry, for although her children were the dirtiest in the street, it was a
miracle the way the sheets came back from her without a speck of soot on them. But when I did it, no matter where I hung them,
inside or out, the smuts and blacks from my hearth, or of the hearths of the city, would get to them some way.

I closed the door just as Peter re-entered from the house, somewhat sheepishly.

‘I – er – I was looking for the unguent,’ he murmured. ‘It’s gone from the pot on the dresser.’ He started hunting for his
spectacles, fists curled by his sides.

‘It is gone, yes,’ I said, equally quietly, with only the slightest raise of my eyebrow, not so as he could chide me for any
impertinence, for he had dismissed it as quackery when I made it the previous winter, but that hadn’t been such a wet one
as this.

Eventually he found his spectacles lying on the binding primer. He picked them up carefully, but his hideous fingers were
a sorry sight; it was like he was raising his glasses to his face with two cow’s udders. I thought of suggesting a butter
rub, but I held my tongue, for I already knew that the pennies in the tea caddy would not last the week, and Peter would scold
me if there was no butter for his toast. We settled again into a grim, clammy silence; the only sounds were the puttering
and hissing of the rain in the gutters and the gas in the pipes, whispering to us of the mysteries of the city, as if our
very fates were bound into it, and which we could not hope to comprehend.

At two o’clock as usual I carried Lucinda back into the house, her legs wrapped around my waist, and she folded her head into
my neck. Her smooth blonde hair fell about my shoulders like a pelerine of gold lace on a gentlewoman; indeed, I was all the
finer for Lucinda. I was glad to leave the workshop and get on with the household chores while she rested, for I could smell
the trouble, and I did not want her to have an attack.

The first time Lucinda had a fit she was but three days old. I still had no milk at the time, for it took a few days to rise
into the breast, and in her fury and hunger she cried out sharply before convulsing, all twitches and purple. ‘Hush, you angry
thing,’ I admonished, and, as if to punish me for my harsh words, her body flicked itself violently out of my hands, and almost
into the fire. Her tiny tongue lolled from her mouth and only the whites of her eyes were visible, and she writhed and thrust
herself close to the ashes, as if the devil himself were inside her and wanted to return to the inferno whence he came. I
seized her and held her close, then laid her down on the chair and pressed my body against hers as her little fists and feet
pummelled and thrashed my tender belly, until she lay still again.

I was frightened; I even called for the doctor, who told me she was having a teething fit, and gave her castor-oil, and told
me to submerge her up to her neck in hot water the next time she fitted. But when the convulsions persisted beyond her full
mouth of teeth I did not call the doctor again, for there was a fear greater than that from which I knew my daughter was suffering.
I had grown to understand that my daughter was afflicted by the same disorder that ruined my grandfather’s chances of a reasonable
existence, and which saw him incarcerated in an asylum at the age of twenty-four.

I went to visit him once – old Georgie Tanner – with my mother when I was only five, just like Lucinda. I remember an old
man more vividly than my grandfather, an old man crouching by his bed, tugging at his sheets, hissing, ‘Your majesty!’ at
him. ‘Your majesty. Can’t be? Is’t thou?’ When we approached, he stood up with the sheets wrapped round his loins, the bones
of his chest protruding out of his nightshirt, and pointed at my grandfather. ‘Ladies of the court! His Majesty King George
the Third!’ He pulled a chair up for my mother, then turned to me, and clasped my hand to his chest. ‘But mark you,’ he whispered,
nodding conspiratorially, ‘it is my army that shall lead the rebellion, and then I shall rule the world!’

BOOK: The Journal of Dora Damage
9.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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