Summary (Amazon): “I had crossed all the lines they you say you can never cross without being destroyed, and here I was, alive and strong.”
In the grand tradition of Moll Flanders and Vanity Fair, this is the story of a good girl who became a bad woman. At the old homestead her name is never spoken and her picture is turned to the wall, but in the vast world beyond everyone remembers her as the celebrated madam of the finest parlor house in San Francisco. Now, at the end of her life, after half a century of successfully hiding the details of her scarlet past, Belle has decided to reveal all her secrets.
In 1838, Arabella Godwin and her beloved younger brother, Lewis, are orphaned and shipped away from their home in New York City to live on their aunt’s desolate farm upstate. The comforts she has always known are replaced with grueling work and a pair of cunning enemies in her cousins Agnes and Matthew. Amid this bleak existence, there emerges light in the form of a local boy, Jeptha Talbot. He is everything good that Arabella craves. His love saves her and becomes an obsession that will last her whole life.
Time and again she will be broken and remade. She will bear a gambler’s child, build a fortune, commit murder, leave a trail of aliases in her wake and sacrifice almost everything—though perhaps not enough–for the man whose love she cannot bear to lose. At last her destiny will take her to Gold Rush California, to riches and power.
Until the day she mysteriously disappears.
Told with unflagging wit and verve, Belle Cora brings to life a turbulent era and an untamed America on the cusp of greatness. Its heroine is a woman in conflict with her time, who nevertheless epitomizes it with her fighting spirit, her gift for self-invention, and her determination to chart her own fate.
My Review (Spoilers):
Executive Summary: fascinating
This book was great. It was on my “To Read” list, and my MIL got it for me for Christmas. It reminds me in a lot of ways of Gone with the Wind which is one of my very favorite books. It is set in approximately the same time period (although not the same location) and the main characters in both are cunning and savvy and interesting.
The book is written in such a way that you’re never left thinking that at any moment something terrible is going to happen, which I fully appreciate. The book begins with the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, which introduces the reader to the main character/narrator. As she is out with the other people shaken out of their homes, she bumps into an old toothless woman who calls her Belle. She tries to avoid speaking to this woman who is trying to blackmail her, but in the end, this woman convinces her to tell her story which she had spent about 50 years concealing. So basically, the reader knows she lives to a ripe old age. 🙂
Arabella Godwin was born in 1828 in New York City to the son of a silk importer who owned the tallest building in New York City. Arabella’s mother was ill with consumption, and died when Arabella was young. Her father died a few days later “catching ill on the way to Cincinnati”. The four remaining children–Robert, Edward, Arabella, and Lewis–went to their grandparents’ house. Robert and Edward were sent to boarding school, and Lewis and Arabella were to go live with their aunt and uncle in Livy, New York (somewhere near Rochester). Arabella despises everything about country life, particularly her cousin Agnes who is about her age and does everything she can to get Arabella in trouble. Arabella tries to hold onto her city life, bragging about it, when she (and then Lewis) are told that their father committed suicide from jumping from the top of their grandfather’s tallest building. Her relatives are cruel
Arabella becomes more and more distant, especially as Lewis grows apart from her and closer to their cousin Matthew (who is the town bully), and Agnes tries to take the attention of the only person Arabella likes, a boy named Jeptha. Eventually Jeptha decides he is going to become a minister, encouraged by the town’s teacher and minister, Mr. Jefferds. Arabella promises to wait for him, and she begins working as a maid to a rich family. After Matthew pisses off too many people, Jeptha eventually challenges Matthew to a fight. Arabella tries to convince her cousin to go easy on Jeptha, and he promises to, for a kiss. Unfortunately the kiss turned into a rape, and Arabella becomes pregnant. As she feels like she can’t tell anyone, she keeps it a secret for a while. She tells her employer, who tells her that Arabella could not have gotten pregnant unless she wanted to. (Biology of the time) She tries to seduce Jeptha to have him marry her, and then she tells her aunt who says that it’s in God’s hands. Arabella eventually visits her other cousin, Matthew’s brother, Titus, who works at a store and gets some medicine to end her pregnancy. It works, but her life in Livy is ruined. She has lost her job due to rumors that Agnes started about Arabella getting pregnant from her employer’s son, and Jeptha leaves her to go to seminary.
On October 22, 1844 (this is a real event), Jesus was expected to return to the Earth and take with him all the pious people. Aunt Agatha and Uncle Elihu were believers. Prior to the moment of rapture, Agatha encouraged the family to go around asking for forgiveness. At this time, Lewis found out about what Matthew had done. The following day, when everyone obviously still remained, Lewis beat the snot out of Matthew, leaving him for dead, and then fleed to Rochester. Arabella realized that she ought to leave too.
She went to Lowell to work in the cotton mills, and got along very well. She bunked with a girl named Jocelyn who had been a prostitute. Eventually, Arabella’s brother found her, and he came with a man named Tom. Lewis tried to convince her (and Jocelyn who he liked) to go to New York with them, but Arabella resisted. Jocelyn, however, did not. When the three got to New York, Tom and Lewis got into a fight causing Lewis to be badly injured, and Jocelyn was sold to a brothel. Arabella makes the tough decision to quit her job (which meant she’d never be able to again work in a mill as they shared information about bad employees) to go to New York to save her brother.
She meets Jocelyn while there, and her madam tries to convince Arabella to stay. Arabella is well read and speaks well, and she would be paid well. Arabella resists, and works as a maid while her brother nurses back to health.
Once back to health, her brother tracks down Tom, aka Jack Cutter, a police officer, to get back the amount that was stolen from him. It ended with Lewis in prison. Arabella tries to figure out how to get Lewis out of prison, but she needs a sum of $600 to bribe the appropriate people, twice her yearly salary. She had been told her grandfather was dead, and she had no idea how to reach her older brothers, so she decided to reach out to a rich man she had met on the trip to NYC. She makes herself available to him, but he only pays her $25, believing her story to be an exaggeration typical of women of her type. She can’t think of any other option but returning to the brothel where Jocelyn is. Mrs. Bower, the madam, loaned her the $600, and Lewis was freed from prison.
Arabella began to use her job to her advantage, as she had many high profile clients including the publisher of the newspaper. She used him to get an investigation into Jack Cutter (who had stopped by to tell her that he appreciated her paying for his new jacket and that maybe he would use the rest of her bribe money to stop by and have her). She also learned that her perfect family was not exactly as it had seemed. Her own father had been quite smitten with a prostitute. After his sick wife had died, he had gone to her, but she rejected him. He jumped off the roof, and she poisoned herself with arsenic. She also learned that her grandfather was very much alive.
She didn’t believe that she could go back, but she wanted Lewis to do so. He eventually relented, and their grandfather sent Lewis off to boarding school to finish off his education.
Arabella stays where she is, and eventually Charles Cora comes into the shop. He’s a successful gambler, and they had met on the boat to New York. Arabella and Cora fall into a sort of relationship. He returns to see her many times, and she eventually becomes pregnant. She debates what to do about it, but eventually she realizes that she wants to keep the baby. Cora says he’s leaving, but he suggests that with his financial help, she ought to open her own house. She can get some fresh girls from Baltimore, but she knows the ins and outs of how to run the business. So she does.
The child, a boy who she names Frank after her deceased brother, is born in the brothel. Arabella eventually decides that it’s not exactly the best place for a child to grow up, so she asks her extended relatives, Anne and Melanchthon in Livy, if they could take this orphan to raise as their own. They agree, and Arabella goes to Livy to drop Frank off. While there, she learns that Jefferds has died, and at his funeral, Agnes and Jeptha reconnected and are to be married.
Upon returning to New York, Arabella “accidentally” bumps into her eldest brother, Robert, who is now a lawyer. He presents her to their father, who quickly realizes Arabella’s business. In the meantime, Cutter reappears from prison, and tries to blackmail Arabella. She hires a hitman, but he is ill-prepared. Cutter stabs the hitman, and kills him, and Arabella makes a split second decision to shoot Cutter once and for all. She worries for a while that she will be found out, but she never is.
At this period of time, the gold rush is beginning in San Francisco, and her grandfather wants to send a pastor and his wife there to convert the riffraff. Arabella suggests that he should send Agnes and Jeptha. Her grandfather locates them, and they have dinner. Nothing much has changed between the cousins, and they are at each other’s throats from the start. Arabella uses her connections and her skills to get Jeptha to break off his engagement and go to San Francisco with her instead. She vows to change her ways (but Jeptha does not know of her previous employment).
In this time, the Panama Canal was not yet completed, and most people who went through Panama became very ill. They took a boat all the way around South America to get from New York City to San Francisco. (Incredible really) Jeptha and Arabella start afresh, and to their best ability, have a honeymoon aboard the boat. All is going fairly well (Arabella is collecting letters from Agnes at every port stop and destroying them) until a boy who Jeptha befriended, falls from the mast and dies. Jeptha begins questioning his religion. Upon reaching San Francisco, the two continue to grow apart as Jeptha is engrossed in his depression. Eventually he gets the mail first and reads Agnes’s letter which calls out Arabella as being Harriet Knowles. Arabella hopes to distract him with news of her pregnancy, which works, until a person addresses her as Harriet in public, recognizing her from her old life in New York. Jeptha, livid and crazy, picks her up and dumps her into the ocean which causes her to miscarry. He gets his new friend Herbert Owen to process the divorce. The two of them decide to try their hand prospecting. Arabella decides to go back to what she knows. She opens a brothel in San Francisco and tracks down Charley.
The politics of San Francisco are young and easily manipulated. Two groups of people–David Broderick and his and immigrants and Sam Brannan and his “know-nothings” vigilance committee were at odds on how to govern. Sam Brannan was trying to push his agenda on a robbery by a man named “English Jim” to be hanged without trial. The trial was held regardless, and Arabella and Charley attend. There they see Jeptha and his new wife Agnes. (You have to admire her commitment, I guess). Arabella finds out from Herbert Owen that Jeptha went into such a drunken depression after they left that he sent Agnes a letter, and bless her sweet heart, she came to meet him as soon as she could.
Arabella learns that Agnes has become a bit unhinged. After multiple miscarriages, she becomes a spiritualist and begins communing with her dead child. Jeptha of course being a minister, is embarrassed and tries to keep her from speaking to others. Arabella decides that she ought to reach out to Jeptha. They begin to meet in secret.
Meanwhile, Charley inadvertently starts a fight with a U.S. marshal that eventually leads to the marshal’s death. Charley goes to jail, and Arabella begins her mission to help save him. The trial was quite the sensational story–a gambler who kept company with one of the most famous madams in the city as opposed to an esteemed U.S. marshal. It becomes even more of a spectacle when a feud between rival newspaper publishers causes one publisher to shoot the other. The Vigilance committee is in full force then when they stop into Cora’s house, and torture and rape all the women (including Cora). Quite the way to uphold morality, isn’t it? She was able to compile a list based on first names to eventually bring them to justice.
Despite her best work, including Jeptha bribing one of the jurors to force a hung jury, Cora still is sentenced to hang. Just before then, she gets a priest to have them married, and she shows him Anne’s most recent letter about their son, Frank. He is hanged, and Arabella and Lewis go into hiding in the attic of Jeptha and Agnes’s house. Not long after, Lewis goes stir-crazy being cooped up. He steals Arabella’s list of names from the incident at her house and leaves. (Over time and not without danger, he manages to kill every person on the list) Agnes continues to become more obsessed with her spirituality, growing apart from Jeptha, and leaving an opening for his and Arabella’s relationship.
Eventually the Committee of Vigilance formally dissolved and Arabella returns to her destroyed house. She and Jeptha continue their secret relationship until they decide to head back east so that Arabella can meet with Anne and Frank (he had written her a letter about going to school), Jeptha can go to visit his parents, and Edward can visit Robert’s family. While on the trip, Jeptha and Arabella have a bit of a second honeymoon, and then once they arrive back east, Jeptha and Edward surprise Arabella that they have decided to join the Civil War! Arabella goes to Fort Schuyler where they are mustering the troops. She attempts to shoot Jeptha in the foot so that he can be dismissed from duty. Unfortunately she only hits his boot, and he’s off to serve. Damnit, Jeptha, just when things were about to go right!
Arabella goes back to San Francisco where she picks up a new Irish maid. She sells her boarding house and a few other properties. She walks around for a while showing consumption symptoms, and eventually bribes a coroner to pronounce her dead. She’s preparing for her new life when Jeptha returns. Unfortunately, he doesn’t. She goes into a deep depression that her persistent maid eventually coaxes her out from, convincing her to travel to Ireland with her. They also go to England, France, and Italy, where Arabella meets her future husband who she reconnects with a few years later. But she never forgets Jeptha.
The book ends with a quick summary of all of the characters most notably Lewis and Jocelyn got married and had many children, and Agnes remarried but never had children.
Verdict: 4 stars
I enjoyed this book very much. It was a story that bordered on the cusp of being smutty, but never went too far. In fact, I thought multiple times while reading how appreciative I was to live in the era that I do. I have so many more options than getting married, being a maid, working in a mill, or working in a brothel. Thank goodness! On the down side though, I found the similarities to Gone with the Wind enjoyable, but Belle Cora was not quite as emotional and incredible. It was really good though, and I enjoyed reading more about a time period and location that is rarely told in a woman’s perspective.