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.
Granta magazine has published ‘Gooseen’ – my story about Nora Barnacle – for Bloomsday. This story recently won the Short Story Prize judged by Ríona Judge McCormack. McCormack said of it: ‘”Gooseen”, stood out for its freshness, its stunning use of language, and its warm, beating humanity.’ It’s at Granta here.
The Anton Chekhov Prize for Very Short Fiction opens today and Nuala is the judge.
1000 word story. $300 prize. Enter here.
‘Gooseen’, my story about Nora Barnacle, that recently won the Short Fiction Prize, will be published in Granta on Bloomsday. Delighted!
Author: Nuala O’Connor
A late-19th-century music hall artiste dares to assail class boundaries in a novel based on a sensational court case. Isabel “Belle” Bilton, daughter of a military officer and a frustrated actress, leaves the barracks town where she was raised to seek her fortune on the London stage. Theater buffs, hoping for an insider look at the antecedents of today’s musicals, be advised: There is very little backstage drama and even less about Belle’s day-to-day challenges as a singer, dancer, and actor. Billed as the Sisters Bilton, Belle and her sister Flo are an instantaneous hit—although O’Connor tells rather than shows readers that the sisters’ talent is not just skin-deep. Flo quickly settles for a safe but dull marriage, but Belle frequents bohemian nightspots like the Corinthian Club, where she succumbs to the blandishments of Alden Weston, a self-proclaimed baron, who is later convicted of fraud and imprisoned. Pregnant by Weston, Belle is helped by her only true friend, wealthy antiques merchant Isidore Wertheimer, who, as a gay Jewish man, inhabits a demimonde of another sort. After farming her infant out to a wet nurse, Belle soldiers on with her career. Her romantic zeal is reignited by William, an Irish viscount who takes up with her in defiance of his father, the Earl of Clancarty, who threatens to disinherit him. They marry in secret, but the Earl sends his son to Australia almost immediately thereafter. Isidor again shelters Belle as she anxiously awaits William’s return—only to hear that, despite the occasional fervid love letter, William has petitioned for divorce. The ensuing jury trial is the most compelling portion of the book, which has thus far languished without much of a plot. Belle’s characterization is anemic: Is she naïve? An opportunist? A gold digger? A slave to love and/or lust? Her emotions, traits, and intentions are duly cataloged, but Belle’s essence remains decorative and unknowable. Despite the novel’s faults, the period setting comes alive thanks to O’Connor’s lively prose and dialogue.
I’m currently on retreat in the beautiful River Mill, a brand new writers’ retreat in an 18th C mill in County Down. It’s in a gloriously rural part of the country, near Ardglass and Downpatrick. There is vast peace, boreens to walk, sweet lambs to admire and delicious food to eat.
And I’m getting plenty of features and articles written in the run-up to my new novel Becoming Belle‘ s publication in August (USA) and September (here).
I’d highly recommend The River Mill to writers looking for a really peaceful retreat in the countryside. Poet Paul Maddern is a lovely host and he cooks and bakes like an angel.
The UK cover of Becoming Belle revealed. Out September 6th from Piatkus Little Brown & Hachette Ireland.
Nuala has won the 2018 Short Fiction Prize with a story about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce.
Judge Ríona Judge McCormack said the follow of Nuala’s winning story ‘Gooseen’:
“The winning entry, ‘Gooseen’, stood out for its freshness, its stunning use of language, and its warm, beating humanity. Joycean Dublin as a setting can be a risky endeavour, the path having been so well-travelled already, but this story rises easily above such comparisons to bring us something new and satisfyingly urgent. There is a finely-balanced weighting here between the raunchy, delicious beginnings of a love affair and the more poignant aspects of Nora’s inner life. Giving voice to someone known only through the letters and writings of another is an audacious undertaking, but one ‘Gooseen’ achieves with both a dancing lyricism and a deftly-executed sureness of touch”.