Becoming Belle by Nuala O'connorBecoming Belle by Nuala O'connor

Becoming Belle

byNuala O'connor

Paperback | August 7, 2018

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Based on the true story of a woman destined for stardom, and the boundary-crossing love affair that enthralled Victorian London.

In 1887, Isabel Bilton is the eldest daughter of a middle-class military family in a small garrison town. By 1891, she is the Countess of Clancarty, dubbed "the peasant countess" by the press, and a member of the Irish aristocracy. Becoming Belle is the story of the four years in between, of her rapid ascent and the people that tried to tear her down.
With only her talent, charm, and determination, Isabel moves to London alone at age nineteen, changes her name to Belle and takes the city by storm. A true bohemian and the star of a double act she performs with her sister, she soon falls passionately in love with William, Viscount Dunlo, a young aristocrat. For Belle, her marriage to William is a dream come true, though his ruthless father makes it clear that he'll stop at nothing to keep her in her place. As their marriage takes center stage in London's courtrooms and in the newspapers, Belle finds herself on trial not only for her wedding vows, but for the very life she's fought so hard to create.

An inherently feminist novel about passion and marriage, Becoming Belle is a celebration of an unstoppable woman ahead of her time.
Nuala O'Connor is the author of Miss Emily and has also written in her native Ireland under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir. She has won many fiction awards, was twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was shortlisted for the the European Prize for Literature. O'Connor has been published in Granta, The Stinging Fly, The Best Small Fictio...
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Title:Becoming BelleFormat:PaperbackDimensions:384 pages, 9.1 × 6.2 × 1.02 inPublished:August 7, 2018Publisher:Penguin CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0735233500

ISBN - 13:9780735233508

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Read from the Book

The June air in London always hummed with heat and promise. Summer was already under way but, Belle thought, June was the month of highest possibility—anything might happen during the endless days when the song sparrow chimed his alleluia from every eave. The window-box roses of Oxford Street were shedding their puce gowns and they lay like a carpet under Belle’s feet as she walked toward Piccadilly. She wanted to stoop, grab the petals and throw them like confetti to celebrate their triumph over smuts and everyday pestilence. But there were too many passersby and what would they make of her petal tossing? Instead, she toed the fallen flowers with light kicks and watched them flutter before her.     People all around were in a tearing rush: the scavengers and mud larks, dodging gulley holes on their way to the Thames; the cress and winkle sellers eager to lift their baskets to every nose. Today she felt large-hearted toward the city and everyone in it. Life was turning and she was sure to see William later, which ignited a glow of goodwill both inside and out.     Belle entered the Pantheon, her most beloved bazaar—it still held on to the flavor of the theater it once was. She liked to walk in the upper gallery and gaze down on the stage of the main hall where every kind of gimcrack and knickknack was on display and the hordes throbbed. She ran up the stairs, then paused at the railing to take in the bustle of the jewelers and toy sellers below; she watched hawkers and strollers and luxuriated in the muddled din that rose to her ears. The brassy sound of a trumpet blasted up from one of the music stalls and, as the tune settled into itself, Belle’s feet itched to step in time. She turned instead to the row of stalls behind her and headed straight for Madame Gilbert’s.     “I want a Gainsborough, Madame,” Belle said. “Enormous and with a blue ostrich feather. What do you say?”     Madame smiled. “As you wish, Miss Bilton.” She waved her hand at a slipper chair and Belle sat. “Is this Gainsborough for the stage, ma chérie?”      “Lord, no. I mean to wear it for all of London to see. Not just the guffs who come to the Empire.”     Madame lifted a straw hat, leaving the wooden head it had sat on bald as a newborn.     “Let me try this for size.” Belle tilted her head and Madame nested the hat on her hair and speared it with pins. “Très jolie,” she said. “Now, I shall visit the plume hunters this week to find the perfect feather for you, Miss Bilton. And I have a new cake of indigo with which to attain the right shade.”     “Smashing,” Belle said. “I knew you would understand exactly what I wanted. You always do.”     Belle liked Madame Gilbert; she was not the kind of milliner who peached on her customers, though she knew everything there was to know about them. Madame had a generous ear and a snug, discreet mouth. She had listened to Belle throughout the whole crisis with Weston and had encouraged her to take Wertheimer’s help when offered. Madame unpinned and shifted the hat, seeking the ideal jaunt for it. When she was satisfied, Belle paid a deposit on the Gainsborough and left. It felt good to be able to dress herself properly again.     She thought again of Viscount Dunlo, of his lovely face, and her stomach frisked; even imagined from air he disarrayed her. William. Weston. Wertheimer. Each one of them a W. Is there some sign in that, some graspable meaning? Belle wondered.

Bookclub Guide

Book Club Discussion   1. What did you think about Belle at the beginning of the novel? Did you feel differently about her at the end? Do you like Belle? Why or why not?   2. Why do you think the novel is called Becoming Belle? How does Isabel “become” Belle?   3. What does fame mean to Belle? Why do you think she wants to become a star? Do her feelings about performing change over the course of the novel?   4. Belle shares the stage with Flo as the two become the Sisters Bilton. What do you think performing means for each sister? Does it mean something different to Flo than it does to Belle? How are the two sisters different?   5. Discuss the novel’s portrayal of motherhood. What is Belle’s relationship with her mother like? Is it a different experience for Flo? How does Belle feel about being a mother herself? Do you think she’s a good mother? Why or why not?   6. Were you surprised by Belle’s relationship with Weston? How is Belle different at the end of their affair?   7. Discuss Belle’s friendship with Isidor. Why do you think the two grow so close? In what ways is Isidor good for Belle? Are there ways in which he’s a negative influence?   8. As an independently wealthy performer, Belle is certainly a woman ahead of her time. Do you think this is a feminist novel? Why or why not? As a twenty-first-century reader, how did you feel about Belle’s character? Did any of her actions surprise you? Do you think her nineteenth-century audiences would have understood her differently? If so, in what ways?   9. Do you think there’s a modern-day equivalent of Belle Bilton? If so, who? How is Belle’s character shaped by the Victorian society she lives in?   10. Discuss William and Belle’s relationship. Why do you think Belle falls in love with William? Do you think William ever doubts Belle’s loyalty? Do you think the two make a good couple? Why or why not?   11. Were you surprised by the verdict in the court case? How did you think the novel would end?A Conversation with Nuala O’Connor   How did you first learn about Belle Bilton? I moved to Ballinasloe, a market town in County Galway, Ireland, in 2005 and, in researching the history of the area, I came across the story of Belle Bilton who had lived there. Garbally Court, William’s family home, is one of the surviving houses of the landed gentry in Ireland—many of the Big Houses were burnt down during the Irish Civil War in 1922–23. Belle and William were the last earl and countess to occupy the seventeenth-century house, which is now a Catholic boys’ school. The house’s courtyard of stables are converted to classrooms, and I happily drive the tree-lined avenue to Garbally most days to drop my son to school and admire Belle’s former home.     When I first heard of Belle, I became fascinated with the notion of a beautiful young dancer/actress swapping the delights of London for life in rural Ireland and, by all accounts, thriving. Initially, as I did with my novel about Emily Dickinson, Miss Emily, I wrote a poem about Belle—a fairly poor villanelle. I became a founding member of an artists’ collective in Ballinasloe —Group 8—and we did a joint project on Garbally and its land. I wrote a flash fiction in Belle’s voice and exhibited it at our annual exhibition as a photo montage of a picture of Belle with some of the text. But Belle Bilton demanded a bigger canvas. As she is buried in the grounds of Saint John’s Church, which I can see from my house, on my daily walk I passed her grave and greeted her. I wondered what series of events had brought her to Ballinasloe and that became the story I was interested in telling.   How much of the novel is true history, and how much is your own invention? Most of the known facts about Belle pertain to the court case, and so I had to make decisions about the whys and wherefores of her choices around her relationships. Some of the decisions she made seem bold and brave, particularly for the Victorian era, so I had to give her a personality to match her endeavors. Most of the players are based on real people, though I invented the foster mother, Sara, for fictional purposes, and the midwife who attends Belle after the birth of baby Isidor.     William’s actions, down to being accompanied on his trip by the wonderfully named Godley Robinson, are true. He was a man of contradictions, it seems.     There is no hard evidence to suggest that Isidor Wertheimer was gay, but it suited my purposes. In reality, Belle was walking a very thin line; but she was, as the judge said, a bohemian and she acted accordingly.     My fictionalizing also includes: Belle’s fondness for gin, as instigated by Weston and her love of sweet things. Her visit to Weston in gaol is a fabrication, as is the birthing scene where Wertheimer delivers the baby. Belle’s fraught relationship with her mother is speculation, too. Also Belle’s eventual ambivalence about baby Isidor and her subsequent abandoning of him. The time line of her name change is also my invention.   What kind of research did you do to write Becoming Belle? The British Newspaper Archive was an invaluable resource, and I spent hours trawling through articles about Belle and the Clancartys. I read social histories of Galway and of the Irish gentry and many, many books about Victorian England and London.     I went to England twice, going to Aldershot to see where Belle lived as a child and to Heathfield, where Sara, the foster mother of my imagination, lived. I also went to the National Archives at Kew in London to see the divorce petition (signed by William) and the couple’s marriage certificate. I visited the National Portrait Gallery’s archives, where they allowed me to view photos of Belle that I had not seen before. I also ate at the Café Royal, one of Belle’s favorite haunts, and went to Conduit Street, where Belle once lived.     As I researched Belle, I gathered ephemera: Ogden’s Guinea Gold and Wills’s cigarette cards featuring Belle; a cabinet card with the caption “Lady Dunlo” by society portrait photographer Alexander Bassano; a page from The Harmsworth Magazine which has a picture of Belle by Bassano; a carte de visite depicting a risqué, corseted Belle by W. & D. Downey (Belle tried to suppress at least one of these more provocative images by breaking the negative); and a cigarette card for Player’s showing Garbally Court.     I also bought a Victorian mother-of-pearl and abalone card case (of the type Belle uses in the novel); and a mermaid vesta case, which I made William’s. My most exciting purchase is a Victorian gold fob that has the Trench motto as the seal—it certainly belonged to a member of the family, and it’s not too much of a stretch to think that it may have been William’s.     I have collected pictures of these objects, as well images of Belle, period food and fashion, on a Pinterest board about Belle:  https://www.pinterest.ca/nualanic/belle-bilton/   How did you decide what parts of Belle’s life you wanted to include in the novel? Were there any true-life stories that didn’t make the cut? I wanted to show her progression from artillery man’s daughter to countess and all the obstacles she managed to surmount to get where she wanted to be.     Yes, I did cut certain things: Belle actually went to Paris with Wertheimer, and she owned a large dog, not a canary; but as a writer, you have to make choices about what to include and what to leave out, so that your story is best served.   Belle is such a spirited and independent woman! What inspired you to write a novel about her life? I became fascinated with the notion of this beautiful English dancer/actress swapping heady London for sleepy rural Ireland. Of course, when I looked into it, there was so much more to Belle’s life than what one could see on the surface. The more I discovered, the more I realized her life was unusual for her era and that she survived many blows.   What do you think today’s readers can learn from Belle? Would you consider her an early feminist? Yes, she is definitely a proto-feminist. She wanted to progress, to throw off her early life and become “someone”; she wanted to be seen and heard. She worked hard for financial independence. She clearly loved William and enjoyed a good marriage with him. Belle managed all that despite quite a few missteps. I love her guts and determination. We all need to have a bit of that. She’s so relevant today when women are still shouting to be heard but, it seems, some small progress is being made in what is still a man’s world.   Belle and her sister Flo are wonderfully close. Do you have a sister? What was it like to write the depiction of their relationship? I have four sisters, though my closest sister, Nessa, died of cancer some years ago. We had a relationship like Belle and Flo’s: frank, open and supportive. The communication between sisters is different—there’s so much shared history, language and familial influence that the bond is tight and honesty is 100 percent allowed. I loved writing the scenes with Belle and Flo—sisterly banter is a joy to write.   In the novel, Belle’s role as a mother is complicated. Why do you think Belle decided to have Isidor raised elsewhere? Do you think Belle considers herself a good mother? How do you feel about her choice? Mothers are as complicated as the next person, and I wanted to show that. We are not all paragons of endless, devoted love. Sometimes we feel ambivalent and trapped. Belle did not fall into motherhood in a positive or socially acceptable way; she had to find ways to deal with that and, it appears, she did. She couldn’t look after a child with the hours she kept as an actress.     I didn’t want, ever, to judge Belle. I’m a loving mother who has crazy days. My first child was not born into ideal circumstances. I have great sympathy for Belle—she defied societal norms but had to pay for that in various ways. She went on to be a devoted mother to five more children; she endured tragedy when one of her twins died. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to walk away from baby Isidor but, it seems, that society decreed that it must be that way.   In the novel, William’s father helps him sue Belle for divorce. Was this common at the time? How much of the court case is real? The court case plays out as it happened, apart from the scene where William challenges his father in court—that’s invention. I read a lot of newspaper reports of the case—many conflicting—and pieced it back together using various accounts.     I doubt it was a common occurrence for a father to sue on an absent son’s behalf. The earl was thinking of his family’s reputation and he wanted to protect it, even if it meant lying in court.   How do you feel about the real-life William? Do you have a favorite man in Belle’s life? He was young, rich, idle and irresponsible, as were many of his class. I was shocked when I first realized what he had done to Belle—it seemed so callous—but I think he was put under enormous pressure by his father, and he was very conflicted. I like William, for his good and his bad; we’re all a conglomeration of things, we all take wrong turns—his mistakes were made public, that’s all.     I am very fond of Isidor Wertheimer. As I have written him, he’s the best friend we all want: supportive at all the right moments, and honest when honesty is what is required. He’s also a snappy dresser and he loves antiques, things I’m passionate about.   In the novel, Belle is very close to her canary, Pritchard. Was there a real Pritchard? Are there any cherished animals in your own life? Belle actually had a large dog, a Saint Bernard, it’s reported. When I gave Belle a canary, I bought one of my own (also called Pritchard, though when she laid an egg, it seemed I’d been sold the wrong gender!). I felt I had to learn about canaries if I was going to write one into my story. Belle names Pritchard after a murdering doctor of that name who was hanged in the 1860s. Sadly, my own little Pritchard died earlier this year. But her companion, Hermione, lives on; she, of course, has turned out to be a boy…     We also have two beloved cats: a crabby, white Angora called Pangur Bán and a lovable, one-eyed, black and white cat called Nora Barnacle.   While the novel ends after the court case, the real Belle Bilton of course lived on. Can you tell us a bit more about her life after the curtain drops in Becoming Belle? What happened to her? Belle lived at Garbally Court with William, as the fifth Countess Clancarty. It’s said locally that she was a great favorite with the ordinary people of the town: she threw picnics on the lawn at Garbally for the local children. She had five children with William: twins first, Richard and Power, then a girl called Beryl, and two further sons, Roderic and Greville. Power died at just two years of age in 1894, and Belle herself died at thirty-nine of cancer and is buried in Ballinasloe. Her father-in-law had refused to be buried in the family crypt at Saint John’s, Ballinasloe, fearing he would be in there beside Belle, “the peasant countess.”     Interestingly, Beryl’s second name was Franziska, which was Isidor Wertheimer’s mother’s name. So Belle was still paying tribute to her friend even after he died.     Belle’s eldest son, Isidor Weston, ended up in the Canadian army and died in America in 1968. It seems his father, Alden Carter Weston, changed his name to Douglas Hale, then later to Douglas Alden. He was prosecuted and imprisoned for fraud at least twice more in the early 1900s.     In 1906 a breeder in the United States named a horse Belle Bilton, one of those odd, amusing things that happens when people gain notoriety. (I like the fact that a grandmother of the mare Belle Bilton was called Slander.)      

Editorial Reviews

“O’Connor has brought to life the magnificent and headstrong Belle. The remarkable details of nineteenth-century London and Galway, Ireland, make the book a rich piece of historical fiction.” —Suzanne Desrochers, bestselling author of Bride of New France“A stunning historical reimagining.” —Library Journal (starred review)“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. . . You’ll cheer for the young heroine in this David versus Goliath tale.” —The Irish Voice"Nuala O'Connor has the thrilling ability to step back nimbly and enter the deep dance of time―this is a hidden history laid luminously before us of an exultant Anglo-Irish woman navigating the dark shoals and the bright fields of a life." ―Sebastian Barry, award-winning author of The Secret Scripture and Days Without End“The period setting comes alive thanks to O’Connor’s lively prose and dialogue.” —Kirkus Reviews “Becoming Belle is a glorious novel in which Belle Bilton and 19th century London are brought roaring to life with exquisite period detail. In her portrayal of Belle, Nuala O'Connor delivers a seductive study of a complex and fascinating woman, who deserves the stage provided for her in this wonderful book.” —Hazel Gaynor, New York Times bestselling author of A Memory of Violets“Masterful storytelling!  I was putty in Nuala O’Connor’s hands.  She made the unsinkable Belle Bilton and her down-to-earth sister Flo real to me, and brought 1880's London to my living room.  Encore! Encore!” —Lynn Cullen, bestselling author of Mrs. Poe“O’Connor has a genius for finding the universal and unifying life essence of seemingly diverse women as they nurture their deepest sensibilities and draw upon their enduring strength. ... O’Connor’s rendering of a now little-known nineteenth-century music hall dancer in Becoming Belle is thrillingly dramatic and achingly moving and profoundly resonant into this present era.” —Robert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain“Becoming Belle is luscious, addictive and as satisfyingly wise as it is huge of heart. Nuala O'Connor has gone in deep to imagine the life of a fascinating woman, and from the dance floor to the townhouse to the bedroom, she renders Belle Bilton's passion, determination and vulnerability bracingly real. A treat as well as a tribute; utterly absorbing.” —Belinda McKeon, author of Tender“Nuala O’Connor is a gifted writer who, with incandescent characters and mellifluous prose, captivates the reader with the same command as magnificent theatre. Becoming Belle is so mesmerizing you will be distraught when it ends and you remember that she lives no more. O’Connor has resurrected a fiery, inexorable woman who rewrites the script on a stage supposedly ruled by men. Sensual, witty, daring, and unapologetically forward, Belle Bilton and her cohorts will dance on in your mind long after the curtains fall.” —Lisa Carey, author of The Stolen Child“A thoroughly engrossing and entertaining read. O’Connor’s meticulous attention to period detail and scrutiny of the upper classes and their shallow lives [is] reminiscent of Edith Wharton at her very best. It also makes us question whether women have ever really escaped from the censorious judgement of Victorian times.” —Liz Nugent, author of Unraveling Oliver"[The] depiction of La Belle Epoque London is richly imagined, lusciously described and strikingly brought to life." —The Sunday Independent"Her novels, short stories and poetry explore the emotional life of contemporary Irish women, navigating the terrain between adolescence, emergent sexuality and motherhood. Her style is sensuous, lyrical and uncompromising in its attention to the hidden details of women's inner lives...Becoming Belle is a remarkable story, beautifully told — and another compelling addition to O'Connor's body of work." —The Sunday Business Post