Nuala O’Connor has followed up her novel Miss Emily, with another true to life story – this time that of Isabel Bilton, the music hall star of Victorian London who eventually became Countess of Clancarty in Galway. Focusing on a short but eventful time in Isabel’s life, O’Connor charts her rise to stardom on the London stage and her passionate love affair with William, the Viscount Dunlo – an affair that his family will do anything to stop.
O’Connor focuses on the Isabel’s years in London where, as one-half of the Bilton Sisters, a double act with her sister Flo, Isabel took London by storm. Beautiful, talented and successful, Isabel nevertheless suffered the consequences of an unfortunate relationship and the press interest in her life meant that Viscount Dunlo’s family did not see her as Countess material, to the extent that they took her to court to separate her from her love.
It is a dramatic retelling of a dramatic life and one that brings this fascinating, strong woman vividly to life. The choices that Belle makes still hold resonance today and she is an appealing feminist icon. O’Connor’s descriptions of London are authentic and meticulously researched, but never heavy handed, creating a believable world within which Belle and William struggle to be together.
The novel builds to a tense and heartrending court case, by which time there can be no doubt that Belle is a woman of character, warmth and strength.
I am delighted to welcome Nuala O’Connor to 746 books today to talk a bit more about this intriguing tale.
Nuala has kindly offered to giveaway a signed copy of Becoming Belle to one lucky reader – simply comment below to be entered into the draw, which will take place on Thursday 8 March. Please note that this giveaway is Ireland only.
I know that Belle is buried near to where you live – have you always been interested in her life?
For the final 15 years of her life Belle Bilton lived here in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, where I’ve lived for the past 14 or so years. When I moved here and looked into the local history, I was instantly fascinated by this beautiful English music hall girl turned Irish countess. I wanted to know more.
What was it in particular that drew you to Belle as a character?
I wrote a poem about her first, then a short story but her fascinating life, as a Victorian maverick, wouldn’t leave me be. I had to find out all I could about this woman, who was considered scandalous in her day, but who seemed to triumph and end up with the happy life she wanted. She went from commoner status – as unwed mother and conned dancer – to married countess and mother of six in a few short years. The novel seemed the best way to tell her story.
Belle continued to have a fascinating life after the events detailed in your book, which focuses on a three-year period between 1888 and 1891. Was there a temptation to widen the book out at any point, or was this the period in her life that you feel was most formative?
Her life quietened down once she married Viscount Dunlo. She left the stage and moved to Ireland. They went back and forth to England but she had baby after baby and, if pictures are anything to judge by, she was a happy mother to those children. The period I wrote about – Belle’s her rise on the London stage, her conning by Alden Weston, the baby she gave up to fosterage, and the elopement and dramatic court case, were really the novelistic parts of her life.
You have fictionalised the lives of real people before in your work, most notably Emily Dickinson in Miss Emily. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to these characters and does the need to keep within the limits of the reality of their lives bring its own challenges in terms of your writing?
Yes, to both questions. I’m writing another bio-fictional novel now, this one about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce. I respect these women and I want to bring them centre stage, animatedly, in a flesh and blood way, so that they’re no longer footnotes, or people who are swept aside by history, but are women in their own right, with agency and full lives. I want to introduce other people to them in a story-like way.
I feel immense responsibility to be true to the facts of their lives and to the people they were, but I also enjoy inventing imagined scenes around known fragments, and concocting other scenes that seem likely. I stay faithful while imagining an emotional/interior life for these women.
Belle really does seem to have been a woman ahead of her time, making difficult choices within this male-dominated society. Although much has changed in society for women since the 1880s, many of the issues facing Belle and her sister Flo are still relevant today. Did you set out to explore these parallels?
Absolutely, the novel has a feminist slant; it chimes with the backlash against sexism that has spread worldwide and into social media and campaigns such as #timesup and #metoo. The Victorian era was intensely patriarchal – women were, mostly, at men’s mercy when it came to property rights, education and health matters. But, towards the end of the century, the model that reserved power and privilege for men was married with women’s purposeful, gradual challenge to being side-lined. Belle Bilton kicked against a system that was, by tradition, weighted against her. She, like any good feminist, had a job, paid her own rent and thrived, even when the world seemed to conspire against her. She stood in a London court room and defended her right not to be accused of sexual misconduct.
A sense of place seems to me to be very important in your work – from Scotland in The Closet of Savage Mementoes to Amherst in Miss Emily – and now Victorian London in Becoming Belle. Belle’s life is explored in vivid detail here and reads very much like a book of its time. Can you tell us a bit about the research required to bring this world to life?
Yes, I’m obsessed with getting the place right, it’s important to me. And I’m a research fetishist, really. I read lots of books about the era, on everything from opium dens to Victorian ablutions. The great thing about nineteenth century London is that there are gazillions of books written about it, so it’s not hard to conjure what it may have been like. I love combing through archives, reading social histories and biographies, or walking the streets that my subjects once walked. I adore seeing objects and ephemera that once belonged to, or were touched by, my characters. In the National Archives at Kew, being allowed to hold Belle’s marriage certificate and touch her actual signature was, for me, a moving moment.
Becoming Belle contains a divorce case so a lot of my research was conducted via the British Newspaper Archive, a vast online collection of digitised newspapers. Reports on Belle’s case were inconsistent, biased and gossipy, so I had to read widely and build the court case, as it appears in the novel, from lots of sources. But I enjoy this intricate work, particularly when I can take my pile of facts and finesse them into something coherent and, hopefully, compelling.
About the Author:
Nuala O’Connor lives in Co. Galway. Her short story ‘Gooseen’ won the UK’s 2018 Short Fiction Prize, was published in Granta and was shortlisted for Story of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. In 2019 she won the James Joyce Quarterly competition to write the missing story from Dubliners, ‘Ulysses’. Her fourth novel, Becoming Belle, was published to critical acclaim in 2018 in Ireland, the USA and Canada; it will be published in June 2019 in the UK by Little Brown. She is currently writing a bio-fictional novel about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce
Follow Nuala on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nichonchuirnuala/
Check out her website: http://nualaoconnor.com/
Follow her blog: http://womenrulewriter.blogspot.ie
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