This historical fiction novel was a complete and utter miss for me. I didn’t like the characters or the writing. The plot was interesting but it just didn’t do it for me.
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 Sharp.
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, British Literature
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House
Expected Publication: August.7.2018
*Thank you First to Read for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.*
WARNING: The rest of this post will be full of ranting and spoilers.
Isabella “Belle” Bilton is a young woman who dreams of becoming a dancer. She leaves her family home and sets out for London where she quickly gets her dream job. She falls for a well-to-do “Baron” and ends up pregnant. She becomes quick friends with Wertheimer who takes her in. Once the baby is born, she returns to her dancing career. Next she meets William, a young, and rich Viscount who is madly in love with her. They marry. There’s a huge scandal when they go to court because he begins divorce proceedings against her. Everything works out and they live happily ever after.
Sigh. The chapters are relatively short, making for a fast-paced story told in third person POV. The prose is way over the top. It’s weirdly flowery and inconsistent. The sex scenes are unnecessary and low-key gross. I’m cringing.
Belle whimpered and leaped into his lap. They kissed and it was the most natural thing, to feel William’s tongue hot and swollen in her mouth. Tears slipped from her eyes and mingled with their spit; they laughed and cried.
Need I say more?
One of my problems with this book is the characterization of Belle. From the book’s description you get the idea that she was a woman ahead of her time. But she wasn’t. She was stupidly naïve and her idea of moving ahead seemed to be to snag a rich husband. Good for you. Doesn’t necessarily make her a woman “ahead of her time” though. More a victim of her time.
Which is how she ended up having a baby out of wedlock with a criminal. She is a selfish woman. The only decent thing she seems to have done was give her baby away to a loving family.
And that’s another thing. She doesn’t like her baby because she hates his father. But then she has the audacity to expect some form of love from her son?! The boy she rarely sees and shows no maternal feelings for. Paying for his upbringing does not make you a good parent. Then, 2 year old baby Isidor nearly drowns and all she does is watch as the river’s current takes him away. When she does eventually jump in, she decides she’ll never see him again.
This guy was spineless! As the eldest son, he is set to inherit his family’s estate in Ireland. But when he marries Belle, his father threatens to disinherit him. Because he was underage (20) when he married, William has no money of his own. So to appease his father, he abandons Belle days after they get married and heads to Australia.
He promises to return once he is 21 and has his fortunes secured. Except, he doesn’t come back! In fact, while in Australia he enacts divorce proceedings against Belle for adultery!
I liked him. He was Belle’s gay best friend. But no one knows he is gay because it is Victorian England and well, bad things would happen to him if it ever were revealed. Belle knows though. In fact, he tells her when she reveals that she is pregnant. They become fast friends and Wertheimer houses Belle when she is pregnant and can no longer work. And he houses her again when William up and leaves.
THE AUTHOR’S NOTE
After the book ended on a relatively happy note, we have this section. Now this page upset me.Honestly, it’s what pushed me over the edge. The author, Nuala O’Connor, gives a little information on the real life people whose story inspired this novel. And oh boy, were some liberties taken!
So it turns out in real life Wertheimer wasn’t gay! So why make him gay in the novel? For representation? Okay… cool. But… I’m a cynic. Personally, I believe it was done to make Belle more sympathetic to the reader.
Finding out Wertheimer isn’t gay made me go back and question his relationship with Belle. Because I did feel sympathy for her during the trial! She’s accused of having an affair with her bff which is impossible because he’s gay and she can’t tell anyone. Then to find out he was straight. What?! I feel lied to and betrayed!! In the novel, when William is in Australia, she is lusting after her servant. Now I completely believe she did have an affair with Wertheimer. Bah!
I am annoyed. If I had a physical copy of this book I would fling it out the window and leave it there until the end of time.
I knew nothing about Belle Bilton when I read this book and I really don’t care to read up on her now. Which is really saying something because ya’ll know I love doing my own research.
The best part of the novel was the court trial. It was a good look at celebrity culture and how it was covered by the press then. In that respect, apparently nothing much has changed. Everyone loves a good scandal. Especially one involving a somewhat famous person.
Rating: 2/5 stars
*All direct quotes used in this review are from an uncorrected proof and are subject to change upon publication*