Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.
I love reading about Victorian aristocrats. Their codes of conduct, their society rules are fasctinating and there’s nothing better than reading about scandals of the time.
So when I heard about Nuala O’Conner’s new novel, Becoming Belle, about the woman who would become the Countess of Clancarty after acting on the stages of London, I knew I’d be reading it ASAP.
Isabel Bilton is the eldest daughter of a military man. She clashes with her overbearing mother and eventually, with the help of her sympathetic father, goes to London to follow her dream of making a living on stage. She finds work immediately and, after bringing her younger sister Florence to town, headlines her own sister act. It isn’t long before Isabel is the toast of the town.
Initially Isabel is completely naive and is taken in by a con man. But eventually she falls in love with the young Viscount Dunlo and it’s their secret marriage before he reaches the age of majority that kicked off one of those notorious court cases that I love so much.
Usually, I read about these in a non-fiction context, generally when I’m reading about Queen Victoria or one of her children. Becoming Belle brought the people involved to life, full of their contradictions and foibles. O’Conner’s portrait of a young woman following her dreams, who falls in love, colours in so much more of the story and the players. When you read about these cases in passing, it’s easy to forget that these were real people with their entire lives on display for everyone to pass judgment on.
As much as Belle (as she eventually styles herself) is held to the codes of conduct of her time, she blazes her own trail. After being burned by a man she thought was in love with her and forced to make a decision that would allow her to continue to live as she chooses, she wants to be in control of her own destiny. While she loves Viscount Dunlo and wants to share a life with him, she doesn’t want to put herself in a position of being dependent on her.
Becoming Belle is the story of a singular woman following her heart at all costs. It’s exactly the kind of book I hoped I’d be reading when I picked it. I think it could make for a delightful mini-series (ahem, Julian Fellowes).