The Journal of Dora Damage….and some other stuff

After my slight obsession with Sensation Novels throughout the past couple of months, I thought it was high time I gave a modern attempt at the traditional Victorian Sensation genre a try. A work colleague pressed The Journal of Dora Damage on me ages ago and she has been asking me whether I’ve read it yet for weeks, so just before Christmas my guiltometer reached maximum and I picked it up, much to my colleague’s delight; she can’t wait to hear what I thought of it. I’m sorry to say that I am going to disappoint her when I report back.

Dora Damage started off very promisingly; it is a fresh, breezy novel, with a delightful main character in the eponymous Dora and a very interesting plot. The book is set in Victorian London, in the slums of Lambeth (still a pretty dodgy area for those who don’t know London). Dora is a young married woman with a chronically ill husband, Peter, and an epileptic daughter, Lucinda. Peter and Dora are both from bookbinding dynasties, and Peter runs Damage’s Bookbinders from a workshop attached to the house. However, Peter has an illness that is causing terrible water retention, swelling his body to the point where he can barely move. As he gets sicker, Peter is doing less and less work, the bindery is failing, and he has unwisely borrowed money from an unscrupulous lender to meet his expenses, plunging him into massive debt that he cannot hope to pay. Dora finds out about their difficulties only when the moneylender shows up on the doorstep, and with Peter finally giving up any attempt at working at all, Dora is forced to take on responsibility for the family business herself, otherwise they’ll all be carted off to the workhouse. Of course, this is heavily looked down upon, and Dora quickly becomes a social pariah; even more so when she finds herself caught up in binding illegal pornographic books belonging to, would you believe it, a top secret ring of aristocratic nymphomaniacs. Added into this muddle is the arrival of a Negro slave by the name of Din who is foisted on Dora by the wife of one of her aristocratic patrons, and before she knows it, Dora’s life is spinning out of control. Backed into a corner, coping with the unwanted sexual attention of aristocrats, juggling the work of mother and housewife with that of being a female (tsk, tsk) bookbinder, and struggling with her own increasingly sexual feelings towards Din, Dora doesn’t know which way to turn. How will she get out of it all, and keep Damages Bookbindery running?!

Frankly, by the end, I didn’t care. As Dora’s life begins unravelling, so does the plot, and I gave up without even finishing. There were just too many subplots and I couldn’t stand the deliberateness of it all. This is what I find difficult about historical novels; in the desire to evoke a period, I think authors make their characters far too self conscious, and every stereotypical social concern of the time is wheeled out to demonstrate how well researched the author is. In Dora Damage we have the Victorian preoccupation with death, the underworld of Victorian London, the secret aristocratic pornographic clubs, the problems of the working classes, the accepted role of women; all very obviously introduced to ‘set’ the period; every character is very aware that they are Victorian and of what is socially and morally acceptable for the period. It’s just not natural. In a Wilkie Collins novel, these ideas are subtly interwoven into the very fabric of the characters lives; they are not explicitly mentioned, because they were just part of life. No one in a Wilkie Collins novel says ‘I suppose it’s just the way we Victorians are, obsessed with death and sexually repressed’, yet this kind of self aware attitude is all over historical novels, such as this line from Dora Damage: ‘We had perpetrated a terrible sin; we had violated every moral, social and religious taboo’. Everything is just so carefully placed and thought through; characters are stereotypes of what we now perceive to be typical of the period they are supposed to be from. They lack authenticity, and I can’t get on with that at all. I’d much rather read the genuine article.

So Dora Damage was a bit disappointing for me, really, and it reminded me of why I don’t normally read historical novels. My best friend loves them and is always urging me to read Philippa Gregory et al, but they really aren’t my cup of tea. I should have guessed that after my excruciating experience of reading A S Byatt’s dissertation novel on the Victorian period earlier this year, I suppose…

However, the Christmas period hasn’t been wholly wasted from a reading point of view; I got some lovely books for Christmas, one of which was A Homemade Life; Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenburg, the author of the cookery blog Orangette. I came across this blog before I even started mine, and was enchanted by the story of a twentysomething American coming to a crossroads in her life, chucking in her job to start a new career in food, and starting a blog to practice her writing. Little did she know that her blog would change her life; not only did she meet her husband through it, but she got a book deal, and now she and her husband run a successful restaurant in Seattle. The blog is still going and I highly recommend you visiting if you haven’t heard of it already; the writing is exquisite, and I love how she introduces her recipes with a wonderful, personal story that is usually more than a little tearjerking. I have stormed through the book; there are some terrific recipes for food I never even thought about making, as well as some traditional favourites, such as a perfect chocolate cake and deliciously different potato salad. However, this is no straight recipe book; each recipe comes at the end of a short chapter in which Molly writes about the experience that led up to her first trying the food in the recipe, or why the dish means so much to her. She’s just a perfectly ordinary woman, but her stories contain the stuff that makes ordinary lives such extraordinary and beautiful journeys; the memories of childhood summers, the joy of first love, the magical feeling of walking the streets of a foreign city for the first time, the grief of losing those who are dearest to us. Pairing these lovely vignettes from a life that could be anybody’s with a delicious recipe, a physical taste of her emotion, is terrific, individual, and delightful, and I absolutely adore it. It’s going to be a book I come back to time and time again, and I highly recommend it.

Finally, my one and only book related resolution for 2010 is that I am not going to buy any more books. Absolutely none. I have so many unread books that I can’t justify buying any more. It makes no sense whatsoever. Plus, I need to save my pennies for a very special adventure I am planning on taking towards the end of the year…but more on that another time. I am going to use the library to borrow any book I don’t own and feel I simply must read, but my first priority is going to be reading the books I already have on my shelves. It’s going to be incredibly difficult, but I am going to stick to it. Perhaps I’ll write a book about my experiences…‘Too Many Books on the Landing; A Year of Reading from Home’. Do you think Susan Hill would mind?!

14 comments

  1. I agree with everything you say about historical novels. I've read some wonderful ones but I have to say that more & more I prefer reading books written in that period. No matter how much I loved Atonement, I enjoyed novels of the period like Hostages to Fortune & A House in the Country (both Persephones) so much more. Same with Victorian fiction. I'd rather read Collins or Dickens than someone else's interpretation of the period.

  2. Hi. I agree with your take on some historical novels–the characters are too self-conscious and so is the author. I also wish you luck with your no-book-buying resolution. I had a resolution like that middle of last year and called myself a Recovering Bookaholic. Unfortunately, I fell off the wagon. Oh well, perhaps it's time to try again.

  3. I am actually quite the opposite. I love historical novels, but I can see what you mean about characters often being unbelievable. Particularly in the Victorian era. I think authors too often make their female Victorian characters to be "the lone girl annoyed with societal constraints." Which is amusing when you consider all the historical accounts of Victorian society- it seems like London would be chockful of rebelious Englishwomen. That's why I tend to avoid the Victorian period in historical literature. Far too many Mary Sue characters.

  4. I was eyeing Dora Damage but I'll give it a miss now. I love A Homemade Life! In fact, it's one of my top ten books of the year. Good luck with your new year's resolution. I hope you get lots of books through other means.

  5. Goodness me – that is radical Rachel! Good luck!I also read this at Simon's recommendation, and enjoyed it initially, but found that I enjoyed it less as the book continued – it lost momentum I think for me. I weas interested in all of the bookbinding detail.Happy New Year BTW!

  6. Dora Damage sounds depressing. What I can't stand in that sort of historical novel is the projection of modern ideas onto the characters. As you say, Wilkie Collins and other contemporary writers didn't need to make thos points.I have a great weakness for genuine Victorian morality tales; A Peep Behind the Scenes by Mrs O F Walton, for instance.

  7. I think Susan Hill would possibly smile quite wryly. I am doing pretty much the same thing this year, no buying of books in Savidge Towers at all. So far so good, though we are only on day 4!I am so sad to hear your thoughts on Dora Damage as you speak so much sense and I have been desperate to read this but as yet havent. I will leave it a while and devour in the furture.

  8. I often feel the same way about Historical novels – particularly those based in the Victorian period and onwards. I generally wonder afterwards why I have bothered to read something written by a contemporary author when there is such good literature available which was written at the time! They so often have modern pre-occupations and characters whose actions and motivations are completely anomalous with the period. Additionally, as an historian, historical inaccuracies really irritate me!! Having said that, there are always exceptions to every rule, and there are some historical novels that I have really enjoyed. On a side note – I am currently reading The Children’s Book and really enjoying it. I can completely understand people’s criticisms of it, but I am about half way through and am thoroughly hooked. I am finding it quite flowing and lyrical and, again, this is probably the historian in me, quite like the historical details A.S. Byatt includes. It may be because it was one of my ‘Christmas books’ so I could devote lots of time to it – I think if I’d been reading it on the tube to begin with I would be struggling now!

  9. Good post! I like good historical novels, that have their facts straight and do a good job of weaving it all together. I'm not a big fan of multiple sub-plots (part of which comes from being older and not wanting to try to keep it all sorted out) and I don't enjoy any book where I have to work too hard to understand what the heck is going on in their world. LOL Your sentiments reflect my own to a great extent.I'll have to check out the Molly Wizenburg book you recommended. Sounds good!

  10. Lyn – I'm glad we agree. It sounds like we share very similar tastes – the two books you mention are among my favourite of the Persephones I've read as they offer such a great insight into how it really felt to live through a war. Modern novels just can't capture that authenticity.Fantaghiro – A Recovering Bookaholic! I like it! I am sure I will slip up at some point…I tend to make dramatic resolutions which I have zero willpower to follow through!Aarti – I think you're exactly right about Victorian historical novels. Because there is such a wealth of genuine Victorian literature, modern takes seem superfluous. However, I don't mind reading historical fiction set in eras I know less about and that have less contemporary fiction available, as the lack of authenticity is less smack in the face obvious!Mrs B – I don't want to put you off completely! A Homemade Life is wonderful, isn't it? I'm so glad you love it too. Definitely something to treasure and to keep going back to, I think.Verity – I know! It remains to be seen how I'll get along…I predict it will be a struggle! Yes it definitely lost momentum…too much plot to wrap up I think.Callmemadam – I've never come across that author before! I love the genuine article too, and that's why contemporary versions fall flat for me. I love Victorian melodrama, and I love it because it doesn't know how melodramatic it is. Make it obviously melodramatic and I hate it!Simon – We shall have to keep each other strong! I think you might like Dora Damage a bit more than I did as I can't stand historical novels and I have a feeling you're more of a fan so I don't want to put you off completely, but it's not worth rushing to read if you've got others waiting in my opinion.Alison – you put the historical novel problem far more eloquently than me, thank you! I'm glad you're enjoying The Children's Book. It is beautifully written and the historical research is impressive, but it just didn't grab my attention unfortunately. Not enough action and just too long!Old Bookworm – Thank you! Exactly – working hard is too much when you only get to read on your daily commute! Do check out the Molly Wizenburg, it's a real treasure.

  11. I often think I'm going to enjoy Victorian historical fiction more than I end up doing – don't know if it's down to your reason of there being oodles of real Victorian fiction, or what. I'm sad you didn't find this one better! I've been wanting to read it for ages…

  12. I'm nodding in agreement with you Rachel. What I love about Persephone titles is that the author in so many of these books is living through an era or event that I want to explore. There is an authenticity in the writing that can't be replaced by research.Doesn't A Homemade Life have such lovely cover art? I really want to read this one!

  13. I'm a little late to this post, but thank you for the review! A friend recommended this book too, but now that I've read your review, I think I'll pass. And good luck with your new resolution! I don't know if I could do it (new books are so tempting!), but it would certainly be very satisfying to finally read all I have bought and never read.🙂

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