A not so enthused review of Becoming Belle from Kristen McDermott in the Historical Novels Review.


O’Connor is a celebrated Irish author who lives near the Clancarty estate that was occupied by the “Peasant Countess,” Belle Bilton, in 1891. The best part of this novel of Belle’s life comes at the end when she finally arrives, after many tribulations, at the ancestral home of her husband, Viscount Dunlo. O’Connor clearly loves the Irish countryside and has a gift for nature description. However, the bulk of the novel takes place in the cafes and shops of bohemian London, where Belle endures years of delay in her quest for marital bliss.

It’s a story that would only work if we were convinced that Belle was a woman of grand passion and artistic ambition, neither of which are evident in her music hall celebrity status or her dogged loyalty to a bland, underage viscount. Historical fiction is a broad-minded genre; its heroines don’t have to (indeed, shouldn’t) be perfect. The heroine of Becoming Belle is lovely and feisty but incredibly naïve, not overly principled (think Scarlett O’Hara, but without her spine of iron), and maddeningly incurious about anything but clothes.

There’s little in the way of social drama to involve the reader as Belle effortlessly seduces and secretly marries Dunlo, only to see him packed off to Australia by his tyrannical father. Her passivity in the face of adversity is frustrating at first and becomes infuriating as the tale drags on. Her fixation on the befuddled William is inexplicable (graphic descriptions of their sexual activity are meant to convince us of their compatibility), and the climactic court case brought by the viscount’s father in an attempt to divorce them is presented as little more than a dry transcript. Bilton did indeed have an eventful life, but in this novel, it all comes too easily to her and leaves her with little to do but fret over her own feelings.



Cahir O’Doherty has given Becoming Belle a great review in the US’s Irish Voice. Full text below.

Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor – Cahir O’Doherty

29th July 2018

Oppression is usually at its worst when it’s called tradition. Often it just means that over time inequality has calcified into the law. Achieving justice against such a formidable opponent is very rare indeed history teaches us, but not impossible.

Step forward Belle Bilton. In Becoming Belle, author Nuala O’Connor tells the story of the real life Victorian era Anglo Irish feminist who bravely fought against every kind of oppression she encountered, in the process of just stepping into herself.

At a time when British culture was still training young women how to be subordinate homemakers, she was passionately pursuing her own independence, artistically, spiritually and economically.

It was inevitable, given all that, that she would create a huge stir (and within four years she was talk of the town and the toast of its music halls). But tradition isn’t dispensed with so quickly, so her rise and self reliance made her a subject of increasingly vicious slander in the tabloid press.

Smart, funny, talented and beautiful, she captivated almost everyone she encountered, but her rise was not the stuff of fairytales. She married a titled Earl and became a Countess through a fast but heartfelt marriage, but her latter days were far from idyllic.

What O’Conner excels at is her characterization, she takes you where Belle went and makes you feel what her heroine feels. Her attention to period detail is meticulous and her rage at the social nets that try to bring her heroine down helps drive the narrative.

It’s Belle’s determination to live her life on her own terms and in defiance of her times that makes her such a fascinating subject for the author and the reader. In an era were braying men are trying to reassert the dominance she’s a touchstone from the past to inspire in the present.

19th century London was a center of empire and about as corrupt and complacent as that implies. O’Connor brings it all back to life and places another bohemian Irish rebel in its midst. You’ll cheer for the young heroine in this David versus Goliath tale that leads to that most unexpected result, a happy ending.



Becoming Belle Events August-October 2018

• Victorian Afternoon Tea, 1 Pery Square, Limerick, 19th Aug
• Dublin launch, The Gutter Book Shop, 5th September, 6.30pm
• Galway launch, Ballinasloe Library, 11th September, 6pm
• Shorelines Arts Festival, Portumna 15th September, 7pm. Venue TBC.
• Clifden Arts Week – 18th September with Alan McMonagle
• Hodges Figgis 200 year anniv. Reading series – Sep. – date TBC
• Red Line Festival, October – Victorian Mavericks with Bernie McGill & Caroline Busher, 7.30pm, Pearse Museum, Dublin


Bookist Review by Margaret Flanagan

O’Connor wrote about Emily Dickinson in Miss Emily (2015); here she vividly reimagines the life of another nontraditional historical heroine. Though certainly less well-known than the poet, Isabel Bilton nevertheless leaves an indelible mark on the Victorian-Edwardian world she inhabited. The daughter of a middle-class military family, she chafes against both the familial and societal expectations that decidedly restrict the breadth and scope of her life. Making her way to London, she claws her way to the literal and figurative top, as she morphs herself into Belle Bilton, toast of the London stage and object of fancy to a bevy of well-heeled admirers. Falling hard for William Trench, Viscount Dunlo, she must overcome the objections of his disapproving father as well as those of society at large. Defying both class and convention, Belle engages in a magnificent spiritual battle that pits her desires and emotions against the restrictions placed upon her gender and her social status. Grounded in real-life characters and events, this passionate tale of ambition and love has cross-genre appeal for fans of historical fiction and romance.


In this lively novel from O’Connor (Miss Emily) the story of Isabel Bilton is tracked from a dull Hampshire upbringing under her mother’s thumb to a giddy yet difficult life as a Victorian music hall entertainer and Irish countess. Isabel follows her dream to move to London, cajoling her sister Flo to join her. The two find success as a music hall sister act, and Isabel becomes entangled with a con artist claiming to be a baron from America; her subsequent pregnancy causes him to flee. A good friend, Mr. Wertheimer, sets her up in his country home, where her pregnancy progresses far from the scandal sheets, and helps her find a nursemaid to raise her son. After returning to the stage as “Belle Bilton,” she takes up with an Irish viscount. But after their marriage, his dismayed father forces him to leave the country and eventually sign divorce papers. Awkwardly written sexual encounters and the tedious back and forth between the lovers during their separation are a drawback, but O’Connor skillfully captures the mores of the time and tops it off with a wonderfully suspenseful court case. This is a transportive, enjoyable novel.

The latest issue of Ballinasloe Life has an article about Nuala’s recent Short Story Prize win.

Ballinasloe Life