‘Becoming Belle’ – Nuala O’Connor interview

 In Diary, News

Nuala’s fourth novel, Becoming Belle, has just been launched in both the US and Ireland.

It tells the story of Belle, a music-hall performer in Victorian England who eventually married a Viscount and settled in his family estate at Garbally, near Ballinasloe.

I was keen to know about the inspiration for the novel, the research involved, and the challenges of writing historical fiction.

‘Becoming Belle’ – By Nuala O’Connor (Nuala Ní Conchúir) – Penguin Random House, 2018.

My first question has to be about style.

‘Becoming Belle’ reads like a Victorian novel. Details of the time are stitched quietly into the narrative and the language throughout feels authentic, the language of its time. What was the process involved in developing this style?

I don’t really think about style, I just do my research (by night) and then write by day.

I suppose I read a lot of actual Victorian novels and then I like Neo-Victorian work too, like Michel Faber’s work and Sebastian Barry’s.

I have a lot of great books about the period and am always on the look-out for juicy bits of detail to weave through my own work. I’m fascinated by street sellers, for example, who sold everything from milk to cat skins, and also by the period food, things we no longer eat or drink, like saloop, a milky, spicy hot drink.

For me, authentic detail is crucial – it dismays me when editors suggest removing that kind of detail because readers may not immediately understand it.

When did you first come across Belle and her story? What was it in particular that drew you to exploring her life? You share a love of Ballinasloe, clearly, but what else fired your imagination?

I’m part of an artist’s collective, Group 8, in Ballinasloe, where I live. We chose Garbally, Belle’s home here, as our inspiration for one of our annual exhibitions.

I’d already written a poem about Belle from the little I knew about her (London actress married local Viscount, amid some scandal). For the exhibition, I wrote a flash about Belle but she wouldn’t leave me alone, I wanted to know more.

And for me that always means the broad scope of the novel. I want to shine a light on the obscure women who are slapped aside in the history books. Belle, when she’s mentioned at all, is spoken of jokily, as a frivolity, because she was a beautiful dancer and a commoner, who married into the aristocracy. I wanted to bellow life into her lungs and show that not all Victorian women were kept down.

Some managed to fight their corner rather well.

You’ve drawn inspiration for most of the characters from real life, as you say in your Author’s Note. One of the most sympathetic is Isidor Wertheimer, who is a great friend and supporter of Belle’s. You say that there is no evidence he was gay, and yet you have chosen to characterise him in that way. I’m interested as to why you made this choice.

It’s hard to remember, after the fact, what inspires decisions like these.

Belle proclaimed she was never in a relationship with Isidor, others thought differently. It seems unlikely that there wasn’t love or lust on one side, at least, so I’ve never 100% bought their claim of innocence in the adultery charge.

Wertheimer seems to have been a little besotted with Belle. Being an all round decent sort, maybe he reminded me of many of the gay men I know: caring, dapper, generous and fun. My fictional choices may have sprung from that.

What were the greatest delights and challenges of the research? The process itself can be so absorbing that it’s often difficult to decide what to leave out – every new fact feels thrilling and illuminating. How did you approach the process and how long did it take?

I always do a bit of initial research, to get the juices flowing. Then I begin to write the novel while I’m still excited and I do my research in tandem with the writing (often at night).

That takes the form of reading histories and social history and, for this novel, signing up to the British Newspaper Archive; visits to real archives (in this case the National Archives at Kew and the National Portrait Gallery, both in London); visits to the locations in the novel (Hampshire, London, the Café Royal, streets where Belle lived etc.).

I accumulate buckets of stuff and then try to only use what’s pertinent.

It takes me about a year to write the first draft. Then I do a rewrite with my agent, then she sends it to my editor.

For ‘Becoming Belle’, my editorial team had me do three re-writes which was arduous. So this novel has been a long time in the making. I’m so relieved that it’s out now and I can share Belle’s story with readers and that I can move on too.

Class distinction is also something you explore: what did you discover about the social attitudes of the time? Are there resonances for today?

The Victorian class system was rigid and the balance of power was tilted in favour of the rich and of men. So Belle was doubly on the back foot.

But, by the end of the nineteenth century, women were beginning to rise up and confront inequality and the process of social transformation began. Sadly for us, we’re still fighting.

But it must have taken great courage for women like Belle to break with social norms and forge their own kind of life. Little did she know the way of life she had with William was ending.

Class never goes away, much as we might like it to. This is something I explored in my novel ‘Miss Emily’ too.

I’m from a working class background but, because we lived in a house dating from 1704, and my parents were passionate about conservation, books and antiques, we often visited huge houses that housed one or two people, with the walls gently crumbling around them.

It seemed to me a fantastic way to live but I knew it was alien and other, and that these people existed at the very tail end of a former time.

Belle’s story appears to have a ‘happy ending’. I’m not so sure that William is such a catch….how did you feel about him as you researched his life? Do you think he and Belle made each other happy?

William was unable to live inside his means, even after Belle’s early death from cancer, he continued to spend, spend, spend. He had to give up Garbally, the family estate in Galway, after being declared bankrupt. He was a bankrupt shortly after that in England too.

William seems to have been under his father’s thumb but, to give him the benefit of the doubt, he was probably terrified and wedded to the idea of obedience too.

It’s just a pity that Belle had to suffer because he was so malleable.

William and Belle seem to have found happiness in the end, in Galway, with their five children. Whatever drew them to each other, they were a love-match. So they enjoyed a happy ending, of sorts.

Becoming Belle

Nuala O’Connor (aka Nuala Ní Chonchúir) was born in Dublin and she currently lives in East Galway.

Her fifth short story collection Joyride to Jupiter was published by New Island last year and her story ‘Consolata’ from that collection was shortlisted for Short Story of the Year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards.

Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, was shortlisted for the Eason Book Club Novel of the Year 2015 and longlisted for the 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award.

Nuala’s fourth novel, Becoming Belle, has just been launched in both the US and Ireland.

It tells the story of Belle, a music-hall performer in Victorian England who eventually married a Viscount and settled in his family estate at Garbally, near Ballinasloe.

I was keen to know about the inspiration for the novel, the research involved, and the challenges of writing historical fiction.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

banville - magris

This website uses to give you the best experience. Agree by clicking the 'Accept' button.