Biofictioning Belle Bilton by Nuala O’Connor
An editor once warned me off labelling my writing as historical fiction. ‘It’s a narrow genre,’ he said, ‘and it gives off a certain impression.’ He was talking about a few things really, mostly to do with gender and genre. As a woman writer I’m expected to write either bonnet nostalgia or bodice rippers; male writers, in this equation, write about war and ships. Irish writer Paul Lynch has spoken about writers being shunted into ‘the historical trap’. I rather like the term historical fiction and the wider concept of following the life of one interesting historical character (real or invented) and seeing how they negotiate the difficulties that they face. Fiction, every kind of fiction, is about troubles and how they are overcome – or not. It’s about how we, as humans, negotiate our problems, no matter if it is then or now.
Labelling and genres are, of course, marketing issues and most writers are not overly comfortable with them. Recently, I was interviewed for a forthcoming Bloomsbury book, edited by Michael Lackey, called Conversations with Biographical Novelists. The terms ‘biographical fiction’ or ‘biofiction’ weren’t ones I’d used before, even though that’s what I write. But the more I spoke with my interviewer for the book, academic Julie Eckerle, the more I began to embrace biofiction as a good name for many of the novels and short stories I write. I’ve written fiction centring on everyone from Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, to Frida Kahlo, from Elizabeth Bishop to Emily Dickinson. My new novel Becoming Belle is about Belle Bilton, a Victorian music hall dancer who married an Irish viscount amid some scandal.
Readers often want to know why I feel the need to take real lives and make fiction of them. At a reading from my novel about Emily Dickinson, Miss Emily, in the poet’s hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, an audience member asked me ‘Why bother?’ I explained to her that I approached Emily, and all my subjects, with love and respect. For me, these fictions are partly about getting to know a fascinating woman more fully, but also about introducing her to the world in a way that she may not have been presented before. It’s a matter, for me, of examining the myths surrounding certain figures and, when they seem unfair, imploding them. I’m really interested in the blur between biography, hagiography, story and myth, particularly when it comes to women. I like to humanise my subjects, without necessarily idolising them; I want to honour them as rounded people, complete with flaws and eccentricities. My aim is to give voice to women who have been silenced, ignored or misinterpreted and the best way I know to do that is to put them centre-stage in a story or novel.
There is a sub-genre of biofiction where the novel is clearly about a real-life person but the novelist changes their name to give herself fictional licence. Personally I don’t see the point in this. Readers will recognise that you’ve based it on that individual, anyway, so why pretend? Novelist Pat Barker talks about the ‘pseudomorality’ of writers who use a different name for a historical person in order to say anything they like about them; her stance is that ‘if you use the actual name you have the historian’s responsibility to be fair.’ When you use a real person’s life in a novel it seems crass to me to break faith with them by making up terrible or untrue things about them.
I prefer to stay faithful to what’s known about a person, but also to invent where that’s needed; I stick to the facts and embroider scenes as I imagine they might have played out. Often, as with Belle Bilton, there are only a handful of known facts. In Belle’s case we know that she went from disreputable music hall actress to Irish countess in a matter of three years. How she got from one place to the other is the story I tell in my novel. This kind of fiction involves plenty of welcome invention but also a lot of research. Biofiction gets closer to the humanity of characters than, say, biography. While biographers normally stick to facts, the fiction writer plays with conjecture and what-ifs. So I got to build Belle’s life from the inside out – in my version of this little known woman we get to read her thoughts and to learn how she feels about her various predicaments. Belle left no record of how she felt about being a Victorian maverick, so I’ve done some guesswork and fleshed her out, using snippets from the historical record and the many images of her that are available.
The more I continue to write biofiction, the more I realise that the research for me is a huge part of the joy in writing these works. I am criminally happy when combing through archives, reading social histories and biographies, or walking the streets that my subjects once walked. I quiver in proximal bliss when I get to see objects and ephemera that once belonged to, or were touched by, my characters. In the National Archives at Kew, being allowed to hold Belle’s marriage certificate and touch her actual signature was, for me, a riveting moment.
As Becoming Belle contains a divorce case, a lot of my research was conducted via the British Newspaper Archive, a vast online collection of digitised newspapers. Reports on Belle’s case were inconsistent, biased and gossipy, so I had to read widely and build the court case, as it appears in the novel, from many sources. But this investigative, intricate work is very enjoyable, particularly when you take your pile of facts and finesse them into something coherent and, hopefully, compelling.
As a historical novelist, one of my main interests is in what women’s lives were like in male-dominated societies and in how a woman like Belle Bilton, a determined proto-feminist, made her choices and moved through life. I’m interested in the ways Belle’s experiences resonate with my own and with those of other women. As Hilary Mantel has said, ‘You follow those things that matter to your character.’ It’s what I love to do: to chase the glory of an interesting life, vigorously lived, and give it to the reader as accurately and as vibrantly as I can.
(c) Nuala O’Connor
Nuala O’Connor (aka Nuala Ní Chonchúir) was born in Dublin, Ireland, she lives in East Galway. Her fifth short story collection Joyride to Jupiter was published by New Island in 2017; 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.
About Becoming Belle:
The true story of a woman ahead of her time . . .
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.
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.
‘Nuala O’Connor has the thrilling ability to step back nimbly and enter the deep dance of time. This is a hidden history laid luminously before us of an exultant Anglo-Irish woman navigating the dark shoals and the bright fields of a life.’ Sebastian Barry, award-winning author of The Secret Scripture and Days Without End
‘A glorious novel in which Belle Bilton and 19th century London are brought roaring to life with exquisite period detail.’ Hazel Gaynor, New York Times bestselling author of A Memory of Violets
‘Thoroughly engrossing and entertaining read. O’Connor’s meticulous attention to period detail and scrutiny of the upper classes and their shallow lives [is] reminiscent of Edith Wharton at her very best. It also makes us question whether women have ever really escaped from the censorious judgement of Victorian times.’ Liz Nugent, author of Unraveling Oliver
‘Becoming Belle is so mesmerizing you will be distraught when it ends. O’Connor has resurrected a fiery, inexorable woman who rewrites the script on a stage supposedly ruled by men. Sensual, witty, daring, and unapologetically forward.‘ Lisa Carey, author of The Stolen Child
Order your copy online here.