Nuala O’Connor’s new book tells the story of Belle Bilton, a woman who worked her way from scandalously pregnant London music hall dancer in the 1890s to Countess of Clancarty in Galway in a matter of three years. Here, she draws parallels with her own life as a single mother in 1990s Ireland
I know what it was like to have an unplanned pregnancy, and be a single parent, in 1990s, Holy Catholic Ireland: the sidelong glances; the parental disappointment; the hurtful remarks (often from friends).
One friend repeated, over and over, ‘It’s a tragedy’, which it was not. Others made sly remarks about ‘bumping’ into me, though I wasn’t hiding anything; some quizzed me about the baby’s father, though it was none of their business; more friends just slowly disappeared out of my life.
I revisited the reality of single motherhood when I was writing my new novel, Becoming Belle, as my heroine had an out-of-wedlock baby in 1880s London, but still thrived. It made me wonder about her struggles in Victorian times, compared to my own in the early nineties.
I was the girl most likely to succeed: student of the year in sixth year, then with a Trinity arts degree completed, when, suddenly, I was that distasteful thing, an ‘unmarried mother’.
I was living in the UK and had access to abortion, had I wanted it, but I was brought up super-Catholic. We didn’t just do mass on Sundays; we did special mass in a special church and we went to prayer meetings and healings and ‘holy’ weekends in the Wicklow hills. So, at 22, abortion wasn’t an option for me; I had been led to believe it was wrong and, anyway, I couldn’t countenance it for myself.
I was young, strong, and energetic, and I wanted my baby, so I carried on and stuck to those friends who did not moralise and who were supportive.
A few friends and acquaintances had unplanned pregnancies over the years. Most quietly took the boat to England and terminated.
As I was in Trinity, I could get a telephone number — from the welfare office — to put them in touch with people who helped arrange things. This information was not widely available in Ireland, and, of course, there was no internet.
Some friends had their babies — again clandestinely — and handed them over to adoptive parents. One friend’s mother said she would disown her, if she did not give her daughter away.
Like Belle, the heroine of my novel, I was always someone who did my own thing. I didn’t want to have an abortion and, though my relationship with an older man, from the other side of the world, had collapsed, I decided to have the baby and bring it up.
I came home to Dublin and, a few days after arriving, told my parents my news. ‘I knew by looking at you,’ my mother said, though there were no obvious outwards signs.
They were disappointed in me, which was hard. Peer disapproval is one thing, but letting down your family is another.
My mother sent me to see one of the so-called crisis pregnancy agencies in Dublin city and I agreed to go to appease her — the term ‘crisis pregnancy’ has never sat well with me. The agency was peopled by earnest older women and I christened them The Baby Grabbers.
I disliked the faux sincerity of the woman I spoke with there and her obvious attempts to steer me towards adoption.
I felt as if she wanted to reach her hands into my uterus to grab the child, in order to pass it on, presumably, to a ‘proper’ mother. But this was my baby, growing inside me, and it was my responsibility to give it a good life.
So, what of the unplanned pregnancy in 1890s London? What moral outrage was directed at the up-and-coming young woman who dared not only to have sex, but to have her baby? My novel’s heroine was one such woman; Becoming Belle is about Isabel (Belle) Bilton, the daughter of a military sergeant, who moved from Hampshire to London to pursue a life on the stage.
Not long into her adventure, she discovered she was pregnant. The child’s father was Alden Weston, a married fraudster and faux baron, from America, who forged bonds and stole cheques from Belle and others.
Late Victorian England, much like the Ireland of my twenties, was a place that didn’t value women as highly as it let on, especially those who displayed a lack of purity.
The Victorian ideal of womanhood centred on innocence and chastity and the goal was marriage and child-rearing. Unmarried women who became pregnant had few choices; mostly, they gave their babies away to foundling hospitals and had to admit to only having one time fallen foul of the ‘criminal conversation’ of pre-marital sex.
Many resorted to suicide, in the absence of any way to restore their good name.
Belle Bilton, as was her custom, did her own thing: she didn’t give her son to a foundling hospital. According to one of her landladies, Belle’s baby lived with her part of the time, so he was most likely in the care of a foster mother, while Belle worked and socialised.
Belle also pretended to be married; she called herself Mrs Weston and told several landladies that her husband was in India. Her pretend husband, Alden Weston, was, in fact, in jail.
Clearly, Belle wanted, and managed, some sort of relationship with her first-born. When she married Viscount Dunlo (later the fifth Earl of Clancarty) and moved to Ireland, where she had five further children, her eldest son didn’t move with her. But the Clancartys, like many of the gentry, lived between Ireland and England, so, perhaps, Belle kept in touch with her son.
She clearly had a very strong sense of self-belief; she managed to survive not just her unplanned pregnancy, but also a court case accusing her of adultery, brought against her by her father-in-law, the fourth Earl of Clancarty.
In an era that was not kind to women, Belle Bilton was a fighter and, you could say, a winner. She worked her way from scandalously pregnant London music hall dancer to Countess of Clancarty in Galway, Ireland, in a matter of three years.
She suffered along her road, of course; women in the 1890s were often at the mercy of men, but Belle earned a good living in the theatre and, in that way, she ensured her own survival and that of her son.
Just as the changing nature of late twentieth century Ireland gave me the courage to have and keep my son, the suffrage movement, and the advances they were making, must have buoyed up Belle and given her the tenacity she needed to push on and forge the life for herself that she felt she deserved.
Without solid evidence to confirm it, we can only hope that the latent feminist in Belle, which meant she picked herself up after she had ‘fallen’, helped her maintain a lifelong bond with the son whom she defied society to have.
Nuala O’Connor’s fourth novel, Becoming Belle, is published by Hachette Ireland.