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.