Title: Becoming Belle
Author: Nuala O'Connor
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
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.
In the late 1800’s, feminism is unheard-of and a woman rising from middle-class to aristocracy is looked down upon. Did that stop Isabel Bilton? Think again.
Isabel leaves her parents’ home for London and doesn’t look back. She changes her name to Belle and is determined to “make it”. While her life takes interesting avenues I never knew existed in 1887, it’s her spirit that propels her to Countess. Along the way, she encounters many people who make it their mission to tear her down and put her in her place. Will Belle be victorious or will the upper echelon throw her back to her middle-class home, ruined and broken?
Becoming Belle is a compelling, historical fiction based on a real person. O’Connor takes the reader from modern-day and plunges them waist-deep into 17th century London. Everything from the language to the distinct differences in classes (food, clothing, appearance, behavior) makes this story alluring. Staying true to the era, this is a historical reader’s dream.
The character of Belle, however, didn’t appeal to me. I found her selfish, demanding and greedy. The fact that she continues to forgive those who have wronged her leaves a sour taste in my mouth. For a feminist, Belle’s quite the glutton for punishment. I found myself skipping pages to get to the more interesting aspects of the plot.
If you love strong women with a drive for social climbing, you’ll love Becoming Belle.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC from Penguin Canada via Netgalley in the hopes I'd review it.
My Rating: 3.5 stars
Buy it now:
Nuala O'Connor is the author of Miss Emily and a well-regarded short-story writer and novelist, writing in her native Ireland under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir. She has won many fiction awards, including RTÉ Radio's Francis MacManus Award, the Cúirt New Writing Prize, the Jane Geske Award, the inaugural Jonathan Swift Award, the Cecil Day Lewis Award, and the Kerry Irish Novel of the Year Award, among others. Her short story "Peach" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was shortlisted for the European Prize for Literature for her short story collection Nude. She has been published in Granta, The Stinging Fly, and Guernica, among many others. She was born in Dublin in 1970 and lives in East Galway with her husband and three children.
Social Media Links:
Reviewed by: Mrs. N