Sunday 19 May 2019

Unbridled passion and a fall from grace in La Belle Epoque London

Fiction: Becoming Belle, Nuala O'Connor, Piatkus, €15.99

Becoming Belle
Becoming Belle

Justine Carbery

As I had never heard of Isabel Bilton, the famous 19th Century music hall entertainer, I approached Nuala O'Connor's most recent novel Becoming Belle with interest.

Her previous novel Miss Emily, in which she reimagined the friendship between the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid Ada Concannon, was greeted with much acclaim, and whetted my appetite for more of her stylish historical fiction.

And I was not disappointed.

In an authorial yet confidential tone reminiscent of Jane Austen, she sets out her stall in the prologue, introducing Kate Maude Penrice Bilton, the intractable, austerely beautiful mother of Isabel and her two younger sisters, Flo and Violet.

Distant and critical, Kate finds motherhood 'a vexatious calling' and worries what might become of her three daughters, especially Isabel, in whom she detects a 'certain skittishness'.

The father, John Bilton, recognising Isabel's roving spirit, and feeling she would suffocate in the enclosed family life of Hampshire, supports his daughter's wish to pursue her dream of becoming an entertainer in London, and furnishes her with enough money to get started.

It is somewhat surprising that the 19-year old might be afforded such an unchaperoned opportunity but the following spring sees Isabel interviewing for a position at the Empire Theatre as a vaudeville dancer.

Pirouetting coquettishly, she performs her routine, earning her a job worth 15 shillings a week and a session with the royal photographer Bassano. She is well on her way to becoming Belle, as she now prefers to be called.

Delighted with her good fortune, she summons her sister, Flo, to join her for a double act in London, and soon they are the toast of London's bohemian society. O'Connor's descriptive powers come to the fore as she describes the sights and smells of London and the comings-and-goings at the all-night Pelican and Corinthian Clubs and Cafe Royal.

On one such post-theatre soiree, Belle meets the older, charismatic Baron Loanda, whose wit and title impress the young naive Belle. She finds him 'a commanding presence', despite 'his greying whiskers', but her sister is sceptical, chiding her to be more alert and careful, and not to be 'ensnared by the first man who takes an interest in her'.

What follows is unbridled passion, a fall from grace, an unlikely friendship and a defiant young woman, determined to make the most of her life.

The novel is billed as an inherently feminist novel about passion and marriage, though I'm not sure how hanging her worth on another man's fortune could be called feminist. True, she struggles against conventional mores to find her place in the world, but she constantly depends on men for fame, love and help in times of trouble.

Although evidently very well researched, I found it difficult to connect with Belle's character. Maybe it is her shallowness, or her selfish disregard for anyone other than herself that caused this disconnect.

But the depiction of La Belle Epoque London is richly imagined, lusciously described and strikingly brought to life.

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