A late-19th-century music hall artiste dares to assail class boundaries in a novel based on a sensational court case.
Isabel “Belle” Bilton, daughter of a military officer and a frustrated actress, leaves the barracks town where she was raised to seek her fortune on the London stage. Theater buffs, hoping for an insider look at the antecedents of today’s musicals, be advised: There is very little backstage drama and even less about Belle’s day-to-day challenges as a singer, dancer, and actor. Billed as the Sisters Bilton, Belle and her sister Flo are an instantaneous hit—although O’Connor tells rather than shows readers that the sisters’ talent is not just skin-deep. Flo quickly settles for a safe but dull marriage, but Belle frequents bohemian nightspots like the Corinthian Club, where she succumbs to the blandishments of Alden Weston, a self-proclaimed baron, who is later convicted of fraud and imprisoned. Pregnant by Weston, Belle is helped by her only true friend, wealthy antiques merchant Isidore Wertheimer, who, as a gay Jewish man, inhabits a demimonde of another sort. After farming her infant out to a wet nurse, Belle soldiers on with her career. Her romantic zeal is reignited by William, an Irish viscount who takes up with her in defiance of his father, the Earl of Clancarty, who threatens to disinherit him. They marry in secret, but the Earl sends his son to Australia almost immediately thereafter. Isidore again shelters Belle as she anxiously awaits William’s return—only to hear that, despite the occasional fervid love letter, William has petitioned for divorce. The ensuing jury trial is the most compelling portion of the book, which has thus far languished without much of a plot. Belle’s characterization is anemic: Is she naïve? An opportunist? A gold digger? A slave to love and/or lust? Her emotions, traits, and intentions are duly cataloged, but Belle’s essence remains decorative and unknowable.
Despite the novel's faults, the period setting comes alive thanks to O’Connor’s lively prose and dialogue.