Becoming Belle

Becoming Belle

by Nuala O'Connor


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A witty and inherently feminist novel about passion and marriage, based on a true story of an unstoppable woman ahead of her time in Victorian London.

In 1887, Isabel Bilton is the eldest of three daughters of a middle-class military family, growing up 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 Belle's 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, facing unthinkable hardships as she rises to fame. A true bohemian and the star of a dancing double act she performs with her sister, she reigns over The Empire Theatre and The Corinthian Club, where only select society entertains. It is there she falls passionately in love with William, Viscount Dunlo, a young aristocrat. For Belle, her marriage to William is a dream come true, but his ruthless father makes clear he'll stop at nothing to keep her in her place.

Reimagined by a novelist at the height of her powers, Belle is an unforgettable woman. Set against an absorbing portrait of Victorian London, hers is a timeless rags-to-riches story a la Becky Sharpe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735214408
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/07/2018
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***



A Promise

Isabel Maude Penrice Bilton.

Isabel Bilton.

Issy Bilton.

Belle Bilton.

All she could think to write was her name. She dipped her pen into the ink bowl and wrote again:

Miss Isabel Maude Penrice Bilton.

Father had taken away the pencil she had clung to and bid her practice her penmanship with ink. “A woman needs varied skills to march through this world,” he’d said. “Pert figures and pretty tunes only carry ladies so far. Accomplishments, my dear Isabel. Gather a diversity of accomplishments.”

“Yes, Father,” she had replied, and wondered if her skills on the stage would be enough to see her adequately through the parade of life. Might they get her to London as she so desired? Lovely, wretched, teeming London, so distinct and exciting, and as far as the moon from Hampshire and her garrison home, it seemed.

Isabel laid down her pen and took her card case from her pocket; it held a single calling card—a grimy rectangle—which she took out and studied. The name upon it might determine her future. She slotted the card back into the case and snapped shut the lid. Retrieving her pen, she wrote on her page:

London. Isabel shall go to London. Isabel shall dance in London.

In the yard beyond their quarters the bugle sounded the mess call and Isabel put away her paper and pen; it was time to serve dinner. Mother and Father would dine with the regiment this evening which meant Isabel and her two sisters would sup alone; this was a relief. Two fewer mouths to feed and no Mother to find fault with everything from the tenderness of the meat to the thickness of the potato slices.

Isabel went to the kitchen, plucked her apron from the back of the door and fastened it over her gown. She had already made their meal—a Lancashire hot pot—and it simmered now in the oven, its meaty scent filling the room.

“Flo! Violet!” she called. “I need you both. Come this instant.”

Instead of her sisters, Mother appeared in the doorway, shifty as a spirit; she had a habit of gliding into view when one of her girls was doing things of which she would disapprove.

“Why must you shout, Isabel, like some Portsmouth fishwife?”

“I’m sorry, Mother.” Isabel lingered by the oven, hoping her mother would leave and let her get on with dishing up the meal.

Kate Maude Penrice Bilton looked majestic in a square-collared gown with sparkling studs on the bodice; her hair was a coil of braids that looped upward like a nest of snakes. Mrs. Bilton had an austere beauty that was much admired among the soldiers at Aldershot Garrison. It had been noted, too, that Isabel, at twenty, now surpassed the comeliness of the wife of John Bilton, artillery sergeant. Isabel’s beauty was a rare kind: though full of face, she had a miniature frame so she looked at once sturdy and graceful. Her lips were generous and she had lavish nut-gold hair, though her large eyes sometimes took on a liquid air that spoke of melancholy.

Flo and Violet came into the kitchen and, seeing their mother had come before them to inspect the hot pot, they set the table without prompting from either mother or sister. Flo laid three places and Violet, the youngest, trailed her and planted the cutlery discreetly by each plate—any clanking might provoke their mother’s ire.

“You look very fine tonight, Mother,” Flo said, and she unfurled a piece of lace on the sleeve of her mother’s gown that had curved in on itself like a fern.

Kate Bilton sucked air through her nose. “I thank you, Florence.” She patted her hair. “See that you girls ignore any callers,” she said.

The sisters never admitted anyone to their quarters on the evenings their parents dined with the regiment, but Mother repeated this warning always, as if she feared she would one night return to find her daughters languishing in the laps of a trio of brigadiers, seduced, compromised and ruined. Kate Bilton knew what men were. And she knew that Isabel, though older, was the least sensible of her girls and, worryingly, the most handsome. Their father kept the soldiers at bay, but Isabel had a fanciful nature and her tender heart, combined with her lust for experience, might bring her to grief all too soon. How long would she and John be able to keep the rough culture of Aldershot from tainting their daughters?

Mrs. Bilton watched Isabel lift the dish from the oven and set it on top of the stove; her movements were swift and graceful, dancing had made her lithe and she carried herself elegantly. Kate Bilton felt a rare maternal gush; Isabel truly was the most fetching of girls, she had inherited the Penrice good looks. She went and stood beside her daughter, took up a knife and poked at the browning potato slices atop the hot pot; she sniffed approvingly.

“I rather wish, Isabel, that your father and I were supping at home tonight.”

“Thank you, Mother.”

Compliment given, Mrs. Bilton pulled on her shawl, rushed from the kitchen to the hall, secured her arm into her waiting husband’s and left.

Flo and Violet sat. Isabel placed the hot pot onto a trivet on the table and began to serve her sisters. Only when they were fully sure that their parents were safe at the sergeants’ mess, did they uncrimp and begin to enjoy their meal.

Violet spoke through a wad of lamb. “I rather think I shall have servants when I’m a married lady.”

Isabel and Flo laughed.

“I rather hope you can afford them,” Flo said.

Violet forked a potato slice into her mouth and looked aggrieved.

“Do not speak until you have swallowed, Violet,” her eldest sister warned.

The girl chewed rapidly. “I shall marry a very rich man,” she said, “and I will have oodles of servants. Shan’t I, Issy?”

Isabel smiled. At fourteen Violet occupied the bottom step of their sisterly stairs and they coddled her always, tried to keep her young. “You shall certainly marry a wealthy man, Violet. And he will supply oodles, heaps and masses of maids of all work, butlers and footmen. No doubt.”

“You see, Flo. Isabel says it, so it must be true.”

Flo snorted. “If any one of us Biltons snares a rich man, Vi, it will be our darling Issy. Mark me.” She pointed her fork from sister to sister for emphasis.

“Why do you say that?” Violet pouted. “Why not me?”

“Oh, perhaps you’ll find a wealthy suitor, too, but Isabel longs for love.” Flo grinned. “And she will make very sure that her love is given only to a man suitably well supplied”—she patted her gown—“in the pockets.”

“That’s enough now,” Isabel said. “Eat your dinner. Mother’s left Eve’s pudding for us.”

“How delicious,” Violet said, and galloped the rest of her hot pot into her mouth.

Isabel rose, took her own plate and scraped the leavings into the bucket. She thought about what Flo had said and wondered how her sister knew so much about everything when she—Isabel—seemed to know so little. She made cocoa for her sisters, pouring directly from the saucepan into three cups, as they did not own a chocolate pot. When she lived in London, Isabel decided, she would have so much money that she would own a gilded chocolate pot, blooming with red roses, and a coffeepot besides. And she would have three teapots, too, if the fancy took her.

The girls spooned the tart-sweet apples and buttery sponge into their mouths and supped their hot cocoa. They sat and talked until the bugler sounded the triumphant notes of last post. Mother would soon return; Father would follow once he had checked all his men had returned to their barracks. The three sisters moved swiftly to have the kitchen clean for Mother’s inspection and they retired to their bedroom before she came in, eager to give the impression they had not lingered over their pudding. Mother said only slatterns idled away their evenings in small talk and chatter.

Kate Penrice Bilton entered her home and sighed. She longed for the day when confined military quarters would be a memory and she would have a house of her own. She slipped off her shawl and hung it in the wardrobe in her room. The kitchen was in good order when she looked it over. Her girls were not bad girls, though they tried her; motherhood was a vexatious calling, something she had not realized before marrying. Children were there to consume and drain one, it seemed. Her girls certainly confounded her at least once a day and Mrs. Bilton discerned a certain skittishness in Isabel that the girl hid well; the other two were less inflexible, more obedient. She opened the door to her daughters’ room and all three were abed, Flo and Violet reading books by candlelight, Isabel tucked in but awake.

“Did you have a pleasant evening, Mother?” Flo asked.

“To be sure,” Mrs. Bilton answered. “As much as one can when surrounded by men who talk of nothing but artillery and horses. Sleep now, girls.”

“Yes, Mother,” they chorused and the three moved as one to lift their snuffers and extinguish the candles.

Isabel lay back and felt grateful that tonight Mother was benign. Too often she forced Isabel from her bed to rescrub a pot or empty the swill can. She thought again of what Flo had said; Isabel did mean to marry for love, that was true. But wouldn’t it be a lark if the one she loved had money, too? She would never meet any men in Aldershot that was certain; her parents were too vigilant. She must get to London. Isabel listened to the sleep sounds of Flo and Violet—soft breathing, the odd rustle of moving limbs.

“A promise to myself,” she whispered, “I shall go to London. I shall live in London.” She put her hand under her pillow to feel the cool, pearlized shell of her card case with its lone, worn calling card. “London,” Isabel said and pushed her head into the pillow to bring on sleep.

A Card

Isabel’s first taste of the stage had been as a stand-in for her mother. She was fourteen and she knew Mother’s small act in the variety show from start to finish, for the kitchen in their barracks home was her rehearsal room. It was not Mother’s idea to let Isabel perform—she was too ill to make such a decision—but Father insisted that Isabel take the role rather than disappoint the soldiers and locals who relished these performances.

“Isabel, you must take your mother’s part tonight,” her father said. “You simply must.”

“If Mother wouldn’t mind, Father, I should be delighted to,” the young Isabel had said, worried that her mother would mind very much indeed.

“I shan’t tell Mother yet, my dear; her strength is not good. But you must do it—it’s the only thing, the right thing.”

“If you think so, Father.”

Isabel glowed inside; here was her chance to get onstage at last. She, Flo and Violet spent hours rehashing Mother’s routines to the daisies and cows at the edge of Aldershot’s North Camp and Isabel always took the lead. It was a little victory to get to perform in front of an audience at Farnborough town hall. What joy!

But first Isabel had to soak Mother’s stained sheets in kerosene before she would scrub, boil and hang them out to dry.

“Another baby lost,” Flo said, shoving the sheets into the dolly tub for her sister to deal with before attending to her own household duties.

A baby lost? How? Isabel wondered. Was Mother to have a baby? She had not said so. She did not quiz her sister, for she was not sure she wanted the answer. All she knew was that Mother would not rise from her bed for a week or more. It had happened before. Mother would moan, weep and sigh there, and eat little of the food brought to her, though Isabel planned to buy currant-studded Welsh cakes from Clement’s to tempt her and make light soups that were easy to digest. When she was well, Mrs. Bilton was not an easy person; when she was ill she was intractable.

Father sat by Mother in their bedroom, held her sobbing frame and murmured, “There, there, Kate. It will come right in the end, my love, you’ll see.”

“It will never come right, John. I have failed you. Again.”

“I am happy with my houseful of girls, you know that, my love.”

Mother wailed and thrashed in his arms before slipping into a dull reverie where she neither talked nor moved; Father stayed with her, for he did not like to leave her alone. He sat on, cradling his wife, even when sleep overtook her.

Isabel had witnessed this scene before and, though the three girls knew not to crowd or harry their mother when she was unwell, Isabel hung by the bedroom door. Mother’s costume was within and, in order to perform at Farnborough, she needed to get it. She waved to Father and he laid his wife back against the pillow, like a baby, and came to Isabel.

“What is it, Issy?” he whispered. “Mother needs me.”

“I know, Father, but I need the costume and it’s in the wardrobe.”

“Ah.” Father glanced to where Mother lay with closed eyes. The door scraped as he opened the wardrobe and Kate Bilton was roused. She propped herself up.

“John, what is it? What are you doing?”

“I, ah, that is to say, Isabel . . .” He glanced to his daughter. “Well, the fact is, my love, Isabel is going to take your place onstage at Farnborough tonight.”

Mother flopped back against the pillow, her raw eyes staring at the ceiling. “So this is what it comes to, John. You mean to let her eclipse me.”

Isabel knew that this was likely the beginning of a tirade and she went to close the door, but Mother saw her.

“Come, Isabel!”


Mrs. Bilton wriggled in the bed, contorting her body so that she could sit. Her hair draggled down her back, a nest of knots, and she wore her oldest chemise, the one with the brown stains that no amount of kerosene would remove. She looks undone, Isabel thought. Outside, the dismiss bugle sounded its sweet notes and the girl knew she would be late if Mother pursued a row. Father had arranged for Mr. Lloyd, the variety show’s director, to pick up Isabel in his brougham and take her with him to Farnborough for the show.

Her mother looked Isabel over. “Have Flo dress your hair, it needs to be up.” She tugged Isabel’s plait. “This is childish.” She looked to her husband. “John, take the gown from the wardrobe and give it to Isabel. Hurry.” Her voice was flat but at least she wasn’t fighting.

A knock to the front door. “He’s here, Mr. Lloyd is here,” Isabel said, taking the costume into her arms with care. Mr. Bilton went to greet Lloyd.

Mother held out her arms to Isabel. “Sit,” she said. Isabel hesitated; Mother looked so wretched. She seemed calm; but Isabel knew that at any second Mother might cry and wail like a virago again and, worse, lash out with her fist. “Come, come.” Her mother flapped her hand.

Isabel draped the gown over one arm and sat; she took Mother’s offered hand. “Do not let me down, Isabel.” Mrs. Bilton squeezed her daughter’s fingers hard.

“I know all the words and steps, Mother, truly I do.”

“No doubt. But this is my role. My stage. Don’t you dare embarrass me.”

“I won’t, Mother, I promise you.”

Mrs. Bilton let Isabel’s hand drop, lay down and closed her eyes. “Go then,” she said.

At the door Isabel turned to offer further reassurance about how well she knew the part, about how she would do her very best to honor Mother’s talent, but there were tears, cascades of them, sliding out from under her mother’s eyelids, so Isabel took her leave in silence, closing the door softly.

Mr. Lloyd had a wet mouth and Isabel disliked the way he poked out his tongue and licked his lips while looking at her. The brougham was stuffy but she daren’t ask if she might open the window.

He leaned forward. “You are as fine a girl as your mother, Miss Bilton. There’s that to be said.”

“Thank you, Mr. Lloyd.”

“You will go far if you wish.” He cleared his throat. “On the stage, I mean.”

“Yes, sir.” Isabel hitched her gloves up on her wrists and peered out the carriage window; she did not like to look at Mr. Lloyd, for the way his eyes dillydallied over her person discomfited her. It was not like being watched at play by the barrack soldiers; this man’s gaze penetrated her and made her feel murky. How Flo would laugh when Isabel mimicked Mr. Lloyd later, all roving stares and sodden lips. Isabel suppressed a smile.

They passed the Aldershot rat pit, where men had terriers kill rodents for money, and Isabel fancied she could hear shouts and squeals. When they trundled along High Street she put her hand over her nose, too aware of the smell of the slops that drained into the open sewer there; the stink could permeate even carriage doors. On the road to Farnborough, the apple farms that lined the way seemed to scurry past and she recalled the day the previous summer when she and Flo had accepted a lift on a hay cart from a young farmer who whistled beautifully for their benefit. They in turn had sung for him. Hampshire could be a glorious place at times.

The brougham hit a rut and Mr. Lloyd, who had been snoring lightly, jolted awake and smiled. He shot his tongue over his lips and began to scrabble through his coat pockets.

“I have it here someplace,” he mumbled. He plunged one hand deep into his trousers and began to fumble. Alarmed, Isabel once again turned her eyes to the passing countryside. “Here it is!” he roared and she sensed his hand hovering near her body. She looked and he was proffering a rectangle of paper.

“What is it?”

Mr. Lloyd rattled his hand at her as if she were an imbecile and Isabel took what he was holding. It was a grubby thing and she saw now that it was a calling card. She turned it over.

“‘Mr. H. J. Hitchins,’” Isabel read aloud, “‘Acting Manager, the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square, London.’”

“A very good friend of mine is Mr. Hitchins. A bosom comrade, one might say.”

“How nice for you.”

Isabel went to give back the card, but Mr. Lloyd folded his fingers around hers and pressed hard.

“Keep it, my dear. I think Mr. Hitchins would very much like to meet you, Miss Bilton. Yes, indeed. When you are older and ready for big things, contact my dear Hitchins.”

Isabel pulled her hand away, glad of the protection afforded by her gloves, and nodded her thanks to Mr. Lloyd.

A Handout

It was Father who came to Isabel’s aid when she confessed she was serious about the stage. She had danced on and off in the six years since that first night at Farnborough Hall but never regularly enough to satisfy her craving to perform. She and Father were alone in the kitchen at home one spring evening when the subject bubbled up, not to be quenched. Mother, Flo and Violet were out at a philanthropic talk; Isabel had declined to go.

“Shall we drink tea, Issy, while the others enjoy listening to the Queen of the Poor?” Father grunted. He disdained altruists and could not understand why his wife liked to listen to their blather. “Yes,” he said “a cup of black tea will do us nicely.” As a sergeant Mr. Bilton had a generous tea allowance but, still, he was frugal with his ration; today he meant to be bountiful. “I should rather enjoy a sup. And you, Isabel?”

“Of course, Father. Sit by the hearth and I’ll make it.”

John Bilton watched his daughter, nineteen now and glorious, move about the kitchen; she could not cross a room without it looking like a ballet. Her movements were fluid, she was at home in her supple little body. Flo, too, loved to mince about, but she had not Isabel’s grace. And Violet, well, poor Violet had a mule’s feet. Mr. Bilton looked on while his daughter unlocked the caddy and spooned leaves into a scalded pot; she flitted across the flags and placed pieces of rum cake onto a gilt-edged plate. He observed her with pleasure; Isabel was a dancer through and through. But she was domesticated also, a good cook and tidy, after a fashion. He had to own, though, that there was an itch in the girl: she was giddy, always looking outward, as if for a great rescue. And skitting about like a gadfly, while singing songs, seemed to be her greatest occupation and joy. Would Isabel make a useful wife? Sometimes he thought her no wiser than a child—she could be disconcertedly naïve—and, yet, she was capable. A girl of contrasts. Was this an advantageous thing, or was it troublesome? He couldn’t decide. One thing was undeniable, though, Isabel would not suffer being enclosed with the family much longer. How he was to profitably marry three daughters Mr. Bilton could not fathom. He would not brook a soldier’s hand for any of them, that he did know, least of all for his darling eldest.

“Isabel, Isabel,” he said, when she sat opposite and prepared to fill his cup.

“Yes, Father?”

“What will we do with you?”

She poured tea and fussed a slice of cake onto a small plate for him. “I know what I should like to do, Father.”

Ah, here it was, there were plans abrewing. “And what is that, my dear? No doubt it involves some poltroonish young man who has snagged your heart.”

Isabel lifted her eyes to meet his. “No, Father, it doesn’t. I should like, if I could, to make my way in the theater.”

“You wish to pursue the life of a performer?” John Bilton sighed. This was Kate’s influence, though she would deny it. Why had he ever allowed her to take to the stage? He studied Isabel. “I confess you have the talent for it, my dear, but are you quite certain it’s what you want? Your life lived by night? Your mother merely dallies with the stage, but you, I gather, mean to embrace that life. You would be mixing with all the disrespectable types who frequent theaters daily. I’m not sure I like it.”

“Queen Victoria herself attends the theater, Father.”

Mr. Bilton snorted. “So she does.”

He gazed at Isabel. It was not possible to fully relish the idea of her taking to the stage but he didn’t want a military life for her either; he had seen what it had done to his darling Kate. However, the time was ripe to put some distance between his wife and Isabel. The house could no longer contain their histrionics when they opposed each other. Well, when Kate went into opposition against Isabel, if he were truthful with himself.

“Isabel, if you are to do it all, it will entail a move to London. You do realize that?”

“Yes, Father, that’s what I dream of.”

“Dreams? Ah!” Mr. Bilton bit into the rum cake; crumbs and raisins scattered to his lap and he pinched them together and popped them into his mouth. He chewed and regarded her, his lovely girl. How would she fare in the city? She was still under his care and she had a heedless side that worried him, an incautious way that took over sometimes, perhaps borne of her guileless nature. But the devil of it was that Isabel had a knack since a baby for triumphing, even when things did not go her way. When things toppled, she righted them.

“Well, if you dream of being an actress, Issy, you must try it out,” Mr. Bilton said at last. “Dreams need courage to buoy them up and that, I think, you have. And there is no doubt that you have the ability; Mother has seen to that by letting you perform with her.” He slurped his tea, then set down the cup. “Go to the wardrobe in my bedroom. There you will find an inkwell in the shape of a horse’s hoof.”

“Really, Father, a hoof?”

“Yes, yes. Go and fetch the thing, bring it here.”

Isabel went and rummaged under folded breeches and undershirts; she found the inkwell—an odd, ugly object—and brought it to her father. He flipped open the brass lid; there was no glass well inside. Mr. Bilton stuck his fingers into the space where it should be and retrieved a roll of banknotes.

“My secret stockpile,” he said and winked. He unfurled some money and handed it to her. “This, my dear, will get you to London and keep you safe for a few weeks. Until you get yourself into some theater or other.”

Isabel looked at the wad of notes he had given her. “Oh, Father,” she said, “it’s a king’s ransom.” She fell to her knees before him and hugged his waist.

“There, there.” Mr. Bilton patted his hand to her hair. “Enough foolishment. Sixty guineas or so will see you right in London for the time being. I’m trusting you, Isabel, to keep your head in the city; I’m trusting you as surely as I would a man. Up now, my dear, and sup your tea.”

“Thank you, Father. Thank you, truly.”

Isabel rose and sat opposite him again; she drank from her cup and beamed. There was a luster to her now, a more joyous cast around the eyes than Mr. Bilton had ever witnessed there. He sincerely prayed that he was doing the right thing by releasing her into the world. And he prayed further that his wife would not lose her mind over his letting Isabel go.


Excerpted from "Becoming Belle"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Nuala O'Connor.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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