Impeccable period detail adds to a fun proto-feminist plotline
Growing up in a military barracks in Aldershot at the end of the 19th century, Isabel Bilton knows that she will never find a suitable man to marry, and certainly not one with prospects. The eldest, and most attractive, of three daughters, she longs to head instead to London, where her life can truly begin.
With 60 guineas from her father, who trusts her “as surely as I would a man”, she gets her wish at a tender age, and promptly sets about trying to make her fortune on the stage as a performer, bypassing the chorus line entirely to bag a leading role.
“This is bohemia,” the stage manager tells her. “And here we do anything we please.”
Soon she is joined by her younger sibling, Flo, and the Bilton sisters set about taking the music hall by storm. Nuala O’Connor’s new novel charts the four years during which Isabel rises to become the Countess of Clancarty, only for her new-found happiness to be threatened by the snobbish social conventions of the time.
Becoming Belle is based, as was its Irish author’s first book, on a true story. There was an Isabel Bilton, and she did, after various trials and tribulations, marry William, Viscount Dunlo, eldest son of the Earl of Clancarty. The court case in which his family tried to have their marriage annulled was an infamous scandal in its day. The rest – from Isabel’s attractively feisty character to the details of her life in London and unconventional courtship – is the fruit of O’Connor’s own imagination. Happily, she had no shortage of material with which to work. Isabel Bilton’s life in London was many things, but uneventful wasn’t one of them.
Women may have kept their distance from her, jealous of her charms perhaps, but men enjoy Isabel’s company enormously. The inevitable happens, as she falls pregnant to her very first lover, a notable cad who’s soon jailed for a series of frauds.
Taken in by a kindly male friend, Isabel gives birth in secret, and her son is sent to be raised by a wet nurse in the countryside. She relaunches herself back into the music hall, now calling herself ‘Belle’, and is more popular than ever.
It’s at a gentleman’s club in the city around this time that she meets William, heir to 24,000 acres near Ballinasloe in Co Galway. She falls in love, observing: “She did so like the Irish – they had a softer manner than her countrymen, were less inclined to pomposity.”
Trouble soon follows when the couple become engaged. “Belle Bilton is not the type one marries,” the Earl bluntly tells his son. “What proper gentleman would harness himself to a music-hall knicker flasher?” He threatens to cut off William’s allowance. Eventually, all is resolved happily. Belle’s husband finally stands up to his bullying father in court, where Belle has been wrongly accused of adultery; her name cleared, she returns to the stage in triumph.
Now disinherited, William and Belle live off the money she makes in the music halls, until the Earl’s death ennobles her husband, and they make the journey to a now much-reduced estate in Galway. There, a postscript informs the reader, she gives birth to twins. The house where they lived is now a school.
O’Connor is also known as short-story writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir, and the episodic nature of this novel suits such a talent for the miniature. As with her first novel, about the American poet Emily Dickinson and her maid, the bedrock of factuality also allows her to concentrate on detail – which one suspects is her preference – rather than an unfolding, interlocking narrative.
The book is carefully researched, but the learning is never laid on too thickly. A peppering of Victorian slang here and there is enough to remind the reader of the period, as when Belle is said to be “clapperclawed with tiredness”, or William is “potted on gin”, or his father calls her a “hoyden” (an old word for a rude and disreputable girl) or the single male friend with whom she is unfairly accused of having an affair is referred to by William’s macho friends as a “back-scuttler”. A dictionary is not needed; context provides meaning more often than not. A few details, such as an explanation of the rules of the card game “lanterloo”, or when the heroine takes spoonfuls of Pepper’s Quinine and Iron Tonic to keep up her strength, are enough to colour the narrative.
Some questions do arise. Did Victorian women really say they were enceinte, rather than pregnant? I must admit I’d never come across the word before. But O’Connor is a skilful storyteller, and earns sufficient trust not to let such quibbles mar the enjoyment. And enjoyment is definitely the right word.
Quoted on the cover of Becoming Belle, Irish crime writer Liz Nugent compares O’Connor to Edith Wharton. That’s a bit of a stretch. Other readers in search of a rich, layered slice of neo-Dickensian artifice in the manner of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith may be disappointed. Becoming Belle is more reminiscent in many ways of the works of Catherine Cookson, whose tales of girls from humble origins making good in society against all odds, once sold more than 100 million copies – though many are, whilst still available as e-books, now out of print.
O’Connor’s raunchy sex scenes are much more unexpurgated but her characters have the same earthy charm, and her book satisfies that appetite for feisty, proto-feminist heroines.
I’m reading at Clifden Arts Festival with my friend Alan McMonagle on Tuesday the 18th September. Details here.
The wonderful Seán Rocks interviewed me about darling Belle on Arena. Link here.
Fantastic night in the Church Gallery at Ballinasloe Library for the launch of Becoming Belle and the opening of my artist collective’s exhibition, MAPS. Mary O’Rourke did the launching honours. A warm atmosphere and many, many people showed up to support us all.
Fittingly, 11th September was Belle Bilton’s birthday.So I bought her a cake.
I was interviewed by Dr Miriam Nyhan of Glucksman Ireland House about Becoming Belle. Go here: http://www.nyuirish.net/radiohour/
Excellent review by Helen Cullen of Becoming Belle in the Irish Times:
19th-century pin-up richly fictionalised
Hilary Mantel suggested that in death “we enter into fiction”, whereby the lives of the deceased become stories told by their survivors, open to interpretation, creative embellishment, reappraisal, judgment. If Isabel Bilton, the heroine of O’Connor’s absorbing work of historical fiction were to read Becoming Belle today, it is interesting to consider how recognisable she would find the portrait painted of her. No doubt she would be gratified for it is all but impossible to read of her coming-of-age in Victorian London without being utterly charmed by this woman who forged a feminist path ahead of her time.
The novel begins in earnest in London in the summer of 1887; Isabel Bilton at 19 has fled her small-town world and military family life to carve out a razzle-dazzle career on the stage. Before this, a somewhat superfluous prologue introduces us to her provincial upbringing, establishes her familial infrastructure and lays the foundations for her need to escape. If the novel instead had begun at the point of her first audition, our understanding would not have suffered, for it as it is from that moment onwards that the story truly starts to sizzle.
O’Connor focuses on the four years of Isabel’s life where she evolves from country mouse into the infamous “Belle” and darling of theatrical society. As one half of a double act with her sister, Flo, the Bilton Sisters are a triumph and Belle becomes a devastatingly beautiful fixture of the 19th-century bohemian clubs she frequents. During this relatively short period of time, we witness her suffering the consequences of some ill-guided decisions and questionable behaviour that society considered scandalous. It’s a compelling account of her ascent and ultimate battle to become “the peasant countess” and accepted member of the Irish aristocracy. Through her turbulent marriage to her beloved but immature Viscount Dunlo of Ballinasloe, Ireland becomes her destiny.
The novel is rich with authentic, nuanced depictions of Victorian London and it is clear that O’Connor has undertaken meticulous research; the results are woven into the fabric of the novel with a deft, light touch. Carefully considered historical details support the narrative beautifully without overwhelming it; a testimony to the author’s comfort with her subject and her craft. This is particularly evident in the vivid images conjured of the salacious after-hours salons where the society set mingled, the shimmering accounts of Belle’s performances on stage, and the sensual evocations of the London streetscapes. It is within these descriptive passages that the reader can become fully immersed in the era and dissolve into the world that the story inhabits. To have had even more insight into the world of the theatre itself, presented in such glorious detail, would have been a joy.
The novel works best when we bear witness to the physical action of the characters through their sparkling dialogue, interactions and behaviours. At times, the extended forays into their interior world feels more laboured than necessary, somewhat repetitious, and heavier-handed than was required. O’Connor is an accomplished writer and should be confident that her story-telling prowess negates the need to explain too much; the reader is inhabiting the story and understands already from her excellent account what meaning should be derived without it being spelled out to us. One of her beautifully crafted sentences such as, “Isabel only needed to be 40 miles from Aldershot in order to unlock liberty”, already tells us so much. Nonetheless, this small tendency does not detract from the overall satisfaction of living in Belle’s world and experiencing the city with her.
A pivotal court case at the centre of the narrative is expertly written with tension, compassion, and finely tuned observations of human behaviour. During these scenes, O’Connor is masterful in her control of the plot and they are without a doubt the finest passages of the novel. An economy of language, purposeful prose and unfaltering rhythm carries procedures along with a pace and execution that is pitched perfectly and completely arresting.
When we leave Belle, the recently retired starlet is embarking upon a new life in rural Ireland. How will she adjust to the role as a countess in lieu of her former position as cultural phenomenon and infamous pin-up? O’Connor allows us to feel optimistic for her, the heroine we have rooted for, despaired over, and ultimately fallen for. Perhaps the author will consider granting us a sequel where the story continues. For now, though we must be content to have been awarded this opportunity to be transported into a living, breathing Victorian London and to become acquainted with the seductive and sensational Isabel Bilton. O’Connor’s fictionalised account of this remarkable true story is an accomplished work of historical fiction that fans of the genre will no doubt enjoy.
A piece I wrote on biofictioning Belle Bilton at writing.ie.