In “Becoming Belle,” Nuala O’Connor brings the extraordinary life of Isabel (Belle) Bilton into the mind of her readers. As someone who appreciates a believably written period piece, I was grateful for O’Connor’s appropriate choice of language and sentence structure. It allowed me to fully immerse myself into this almost unbelievable story set in the late 1800s (1887-1891). In many ways, Belle Bilton was out of step with her time.
We follow Isabel as she takes off from the military town where she lived, with her parents and two younger sisters, to travel to London and make a life for herself on the stage. And she succeeds. Belle begins earning her own, something that very few middle-class women of the day were able to do. Soon Belle’s sister, Flo, joins her on the London stage and they become a popular sisters act. But Belle still lives in Victorian England and thus when her personal life falls under public eyes, she endures the legal discrimination of women associated with that era.
Although this novel is an historical fiction, not a biography, it feels like a true and accurate portrayal of the trials and tribulations of an unapologetically self-sufficient woman in a time when self-sufficiency was not considered a female trait. I would also like to point out that one of my favourite parts of this book is at the end (don’t worry, no spoilers here), when Nuala O’Connor neatly lays out what is fact and what is fiction. I am that reader of historical fiction who always wants to get to the end of the story so that I can start researching this exact aspect of it. All I can tell you is that Nuala expertly weaves fiction into this story without straying too far from the facts, and that skill is what I find to be definitive of great historical fiction.
Ruby Reid-Sharp- www.tbpl.ca