In Victorian London, a wife and mother must cross gender, labor and social boundaries to become a gifted bookbinder—of pornographic literature.
Starling’s only novel (she died in 2006) exposes grotesque Victorian beliefs and double standards through the occasionally lurid story of Dora Damage, who, in 1859, is busy enough tending her epileptic daughter, her home and her irritable bookbinder husband Peter. But when Peter’s rheumatism prevents him from working and threatens financial ruin, she must take over the bookbinding business too, in contravention of male-only practices. Rich Sir Jocelyn Knightley favors Dora’s designs and pays her to bind the increasingly explicit, violent and racist manuscripts circulated by his Noble Savages group. Meanwhile, his wife, Lady Sylvia, an abolitionist, persuades Dora to employ an escaped slave, Din Nelson, to whom Dora finds herself secretly attracted. Now she must work all hours to pay off Peter’s debts while keeping the Noble Savages’ books a secret. When Peter dies, the Noble Savages pay for his burial and give Dora enough to clear her debts. Then Lady Sylvia turns up asking for refuge, having been thrown out by Sir Jocelyn for giving birth to a mixed-race baby. As Dora begins to understand the depths of the Savages’ depravity, she is sucked into an action-packed conclusion involving abduction, Din, the American Civil War and her own tattooed buttocks.
Starling’s cornucopia of ideas, research, issues and outrage tends to overflow, but there’s entertainment in the novel’s mood of near-comic irrepressibility and in its heroine—feisty, lusty Dora.