One of the things we forget about the past, even our own pasts, is the sheer inconvenience of everything. Belinda Starling's first, and regrettably posthumous, novel has many strengths, but among them is this: she makes us inhabit her heroine's endless struggle with dirt and black beetles and decay, and makes that struggle both actual and symbolic of everything else in the novel. Dora is a modern woman in many ways, born out of time as so many were, in an age characterised both by oppression and glimmers of hope.
She is the wife of a mid-Victorian bookbinder crippled by arthritis, who turns her hand to the trade to keep her family together. When she is approached to bind the specialist pornography of reactionary scientists, she does what she has to. She is repelled by much of the work, but she has the discrimination to learn from it; pornography becomes her burden, but also her addiction and her college.
This is a coming-of-age novel that has the sense and honesty to acknowledge that people can often learn from what repels them. The syndicate of her patrons are both vile and paternal; both evil madmen and men of lively intelligence.
Gradually, she finds herself responsible for others: an escaped American slave, a young woman raped and abandoned, an apprentice imprisoned for sodomy, an upper-class woman threatened with being declared insane. Dora builds a family of solidarity as her marriage collapses under the strain of her husband's laudanum addiction; she finds courage and different sorts of love. The more she learns, the more she understands; the bullying anthropologist Jocelyn is more than a mere villain, and she parts from him on equal terms. This is a book about learning to make the best of things, but also a book about making. The skills Dora acquires as a necessity become an artistic vocation in which she takes real pleasure.
Starling's early death (she died last year, aged 34) has deprived her audience of a writer of real accomplishment. In particular, she had that most important gift for a historical novelist: the ability to wear her research lightly and to integrate every fact into a well-stitched tapestry of plot, symbol and character. She makes everything from the cleaning of stoves to the noise of the Necropolis railway matter, as opposed to just being right.
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