Becoming Belle. Nuala O’Connor. Penguin Publishing Group. August 2018. 384 pp. ISBN#: 9780735214408.
Isabel Belton is the daughter of a military family, living in a small Hampshire garrison town. Her father adores her, and her mother abuses her. It’s 1887 and women’s roles are set in stone but that doesn’t stop Isabel. At the age of 19, off she goes to London, dreaming of becoming a star and of course she does just that. She’s quickly hired as she’s beautiful and a talented dancer. She insists her sister Flor join her and they become the talk of the stage world as the Belton Sisters. They do their performances but then become the talk of the nighttime “Bohemian” world where drinking, dancing and partying are the norm. The latter seems their real love!
However, things go too far, and Isabel becomes the defendant in a lawsuit and that Victorian world has its way as the males who will judge her impose in public their traditional, double-faced mores. Later, Belle herself will face that same justice or injustice, depending on your point of view, and eventually escapes by marrying. She’s now the Countess of Clan Carty and able to do as she will without condemnation. Some reference is made to her gay men friends but never goes into any substance on the issue, nothing beyond how that relationship serves to cover her less innocent deeds.
What saves this novel from being a stereotypical tale is Belle’s friendship with Wertheimer and Belle’s closeness to her sister Flo. Belle’s trial is a tad interesting as well. Given the time in which this story takes place, it reads like it took place many, many years later when Belle’s rise to fame and fortune were not questioned. I wanted to get to know Belle better but that never happens. One also wonders what happened to her connection to the rest of her family, other than a rather innocuous comment from her mother during her trial. It’s only at the end when Belle is carrying a child that she can call Garbally Court “home,” leaving Flo somewhat at loose ends.
Becoming Belle is a nice story, a good summer read about the willingness to pay the price of attaining the top of one’s dreams!