Like its titular main character, Dora Beddoe is intriguingly flawed. The story occasionally frustrates precisely because the plump spinster at its heart is meant to do so; it is by design that Dora Beddoe transforms from a sympathetic character to a pitiable one.
We first find Dora Beddoe in circumstances equally comfortable and limiting. (This state of tension becomes a motif throughout the tale.) She tends the house and organizes the papers for her brother Philip, an amiable and intelligent man who has taken over management of her deceased father’s factory. Dora loves her brother devotedly, and to her – here I apply a little psychology of my own – Philip offers the unremarkable woman a chance to keep her maidenly status without the added burden of acquiring a husband.
It is her mother, a wonderfully drawn complainant of life who never misses an opportunity to find fault with Dora and the world, who makes living in the family home an increasingly exasperating task. When fate and a loose carpet thread conspire to send Mrs. Beddoe tumbling down a flight of stairs, Dora is surprised by the relief she soon feels. The nosey housekeeper Mrs. Pigeon nurses her suspicions against Dora, however, and very quickly rumors circulate that the matriarch’s death wasn’t an accident.
With Philip and Dora relocating – and with Philip continuing to pursue his interest in examining and usually debunking the phenomena manifested by clairvoyants and mediums – Dora is actually happy once more. But again she soon finds irritation in a life that should offer contentment: a foolish young woman named Edna Ponderell remains in the house Philip has bought, and the awkward temporary arrangement offers just enough time for this new obstacle to position herself between Dora and her brother. Wedding plans are discussed (with the potential groom notably indifferent to the prospect) and soon Dora is visiting multiple chemists’ shops, explaining matter-of-factly that she needs to purchase some poison for rats. The events that ensue – creating another interesting tension of binaries, this time of guilt and innocence – leave Dora in a limbo of her own devising, and one that feels surprising, inevitable, and earned.
In some ways, the story here is decidedly sharply focused: it is domestic and “small” in scale. The author is interested in exploring the contrariness of her characters, and her attention to detail helps to free these flawed figures from the potentially confining melodrama of the plot. Philip, for example, alternately finds his sister guilty, innocent, altruistic, and selfish, depending on his own needs and conscience in the moment. Dora displays similar changes in perspective as she acts and is acted upon, particularly when society pronounces judgement, as it very much likes to do. This emotional fluidity feels honest, and it allows for a multi-dimensionality that lifts Dora Beddoe from a genre exercise into the realm of thoughtful literature. Like its main character, the book may be unassuming, but it nevertheless knows what it wants to achieve.