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?!