Philip Margulies’ novel, Belle Cora, is about a woman who loves so fiercely, so loyally, that she spends most of her first 33 years of life trying to save them from themselves. Belle Cora is based on a real woman who popped up a couple of times in the history of early San Francisco; Margulies took these mentions and created an entire biography for her. Belle is not an easy woman to like, but she inspires admiration in spite of her willingness to bribe and blackmail for her men.
In Margulies’ version, Belle Cora was born Arabella Godwin in New York in the 1820s. As the oldest daughter of a consumptive mother, Belle was in charge of taking care of her youngest siblings and helping to run the household. Her mother died when Belle was very young and her father followed shortly after. Belle’s grandparents send her and her youngest brother, Lewis, to live on with their aunt and uncle—presumably because the farm air is better for their potentially tubercular lungs than city air. This is the first great injustice of Belle’s life. Her relatives are rough and ignorant and violent and they do not like their city cousins.
Margulies spends a lot of time with Belle in Livy, New York—so long that I started to wonder how Arabella would become infamous madam Belle Cora in San Francisco. The early chapters of the book serve as an explanation for that transformation. Her mother told Belle to take care of her brother, Lewis. With her relatives alternately punishing and shunning the two orphans, Belle quickly learns that it’s up to her to defend herself and her brother. Only one person outside of her family shows Belle any affection. This boy, Jeptha, is also an outsider in Livy and the two understand each other.
Unfortunately for Belle, her brother and Jeptha are pig-headed. Lewis’s lessons from Livy all reinforce the idea that any problem can be solved through violence. Most of his life is spent on the wrong side of the law. Lewis’s reliance on violence and perpetual bad luck are the causes of Belle’s “fall” into prostitution. For women in the nineteenth century, the only way to make money fast—and Belle needs a lot of money to get Lewis out of the Tombs—is prostitution. Belle’s attempts to stay with Jeptha and protect him are even more heartbreaking. Belle’s profession is a huge problem for Jeptha, who trained to be a Baptist preacher. In spite of their attraction and connection, Jeptha takes years to reconcile his love for Belle with the immoral things Belle has done in her life.
Belle Cora got much more interesting for me once the main action moved to San Francisco. In 1851 and 1856, Belle gets caught up in the periphery of the power struggle between California’s Territorial Government and the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance. Everyone claims to be upholding the side of Right. Belle just wants to keep everyone she cares about alive and comfortable. But she is being pulled in two different directions as to how she should achieve those goals. Her lover, Charles Cora, and her brother, Lewis, don’t judge her for being a prostitute and madam who occasionally bribes and blackmails. On the other side is Jeptha, whose principles and sense of self are rigid enough that he can’t stop judging Cora when she colors outside the lines. It takes him a long time to realize what Belle learned early on: life is more complex than a legal or moral code can handle.
The conflicts at the heart of Belle Cora are right in my wheelhouse, to borrow a phrase from Book Riot. I am fascinated by characters who create their own moral and ethical guidelines, who have to learn to live with themselves after breaking Society’s laws. These characters are brave, intelligent, complex, and invariably the strongest people in their stories.