Belle Cora

Written by Phillip Margulies
Review by Marina Maxwell

Having just survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the elderly and respectable Mrs Andersen decides it’s time to reveal her secret past in a sensational memoir.

After their parents die, Arabella Godwin and her brother Lewis are removed from their comfortable life in New York and sent to relatives on a farm. Arabella struggles as an outsider in the narrow-minded community that values hard work but practises a mean-spirited Christianity. She also clashes with her duplicitous cousin, Agnes, and her future destiny has its roots in their enduring tussle for the affections of budding preacher, Jeptha Talbot.

When Arabella trusts the wrong person, she begins her downward spiral into disgrace. Shunned, and worried about the wayward Lewis, she follows him to the Bowery, where she is forced into the double life that eventually leads her to San Francisco. There, she takes the surname of her gambler lover and becomes Belle Cora, that city’s most notorious madam during the wild 1850s. When the couple clash with the fanatical Vigilance Committee, they reap tragic consequences.

Phillip Margulies has taken the scant known facts about Belle and created a magnificent heroine. Although not always a sympathetic figure, her frankness about her failings and her justification for the artful actions she is often forced to take to guarantee self-preservation make her utterly compelling.

But this is far more than just one woman’s story. It is also an epic detailed exploration of the underbelly of 19th-century America, with all its vice, bigotry, political corruption and religious hypocrisy. The descriptions are rich, the characters well-fleshed, and the novel’s crowning achievement is that it doesn’t try to appease modern sensibilities and presents an honest reflection of this era. A memorable and outstanding work on many levels.