In Becoming Belle, Nuala O’Connor (a pseudonym of the Irish author Nuala Ní Chonchúir) brings to life a young woman whose picture hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London but whose name is probably unfamiliar to most of us today. She is Belle Bilton, a star of the Victorian music hall who later became the Countess of Clancarty. O’Connor’s novel tells, in fictional form, the story of Belle’s rise to fame, her marriage and the scandalous court case that follows.
Born Isabel Maud Penrice Bilton, the eldest daughter of an artillery sergeant, Belle grows up in an army garrison watching her mother, an entertainer, perform for the troops. It is while taking her mother’s place on stage one night that Belle decides she also wants a career in entertainment, so at the age of nineteen she leaves the military life behind and heads for London to make her dream come true. Belle’s singing and dancing quickly causes a sensation and when she is joined by one of her younger sisters, Flo, the two form a double act that becomes the star attraction of the London theatres.
Following a performance one day in 1889, Belle meets and falls in love with William, the young Viscount Dunlo, son and heir to the Earl of Clancarty. It’s not long before she and William are standing in the Registrar’s Office in Hampstead taking their marriage vows and looking forward to spending the rest of their lives together. At twenty years old, however, William is still firmly under the thumb of his father, the Earl, who is furious when he hears of the secret wedding and makes it clear that he will do whatever it takes to separate his son from Belle.
Some books grab you from the first page, while others take much longer to settle into – and for me, Becoming Belle was one of the latter rather than the former. The account of Belle’s early life and first days on the stage didn’t interest me much and I came close to abandoning the book after a few chapters. Belle herself seemed as though she would be difficult to like – an ambitious social climber like Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, but with little depth or substance to her character – and the focus on her sexual encounters also put me off. I’m glad I continued, though, because I thought the second half of the book, after Belle meets William, was much more compelling than the first.
I don’t want to say too much about how the story of Belle’s marriage plays out, but it involves a court case which draws in most of the characters we have met in the novel and which was widely reported in the media of the time. I managed to resist looking up the facts about the real Belle Bilton, so I didn’t know what the outcome of the court case would be, but by that stage of the book I was fully invested in Belle’s story and hoped there would be a happy ending for her. I still didn’t like her very much, but I had more sympathy for her than I’d had earlier in the novel because she’d had so much to contend with during her short time in London. However, I couldn’t really see her as a feminist heroine ‘ahead of her time’ as she is described in the book’s blurb; although I admired her for trying to get what she wanted out of life, for working hard at her chosen career and securing financial independence, she seemed too willing to give it all up to become Countess of Clancarty and too ready to forgive William for the appalling way he treats her at times.
I have no idea what the real William, Viscount Dunlo was supposed to be like, but based on the way he is portrayed in this book, I found him immature and pathetic, declaring his love for Belle while at the same time allowing his father to tear them apart. Luckily, there were plenty of other, stronger characters in the novel whom I found more appealing to read about: for example, Belle’s close friend Isidor Wertheimer, the antiques dealer, and her sister, Flo, both of whom support her through her various ordeals.
Despite struggling with the first half of this book, I ended up really enjoying Becoming Belle – although I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of her time at Garbally Court, the Clancarty estate in Ireland. Anyway, I went from thinking Nuala O’Connor was not an author for me to wanting to read more of her books. Miss Emily, her novel about the poet Emily Dickinson sounds like an interesting one.
Although I read this book in February, I have waited until now to post my review because this month Cathy at 746 Books is hosting her annual Reading Ireland event. I hope to have time to write about another book by an Irish author before the end of March.