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Review: Belle Cora, by Phillip Margulies
Doubleday, 2014. 591 pp. $29

On their mother’s death from tuberculosis in 1838, Arabella Godwin and her beloved younger brother, Lewis, are sent from their New York City home to their aunt and uncle’s farm upstate. Neither the children nor their new guardians enjoy the arrangement, but Aunt Agatha isn’t the worst problem. It’s cousins Agnes and Matthew, two of the most devious, cunning torturers an aching child has ever met, at exactly the most vulnerable time of life, whose viciousness (of course) largely escapes Agatha’s detection.

In such a life, no quarter need be asked, for none will be given. Consider the first day of school, in November:

A chalky shard of moon sat in the sky over the barn roof; a veil of frost turned weeds, sheds, and barrels a shade paler; and the frozen vegetation was springy under our feet. Steam rose from fresh dung the boys shoveled into a wheelbarrow, while the girls milked the cows, often dozing for a few seconds on the creatures’ warm bellies. Twice, after I had milked a full bucket, the cow stepped forward and flicked its manure-coated tail into the milk, ruining it, and I was whipped.

But school also brings a ray of light in Jeptha Talbot, a boy whose quiet understanding touches Arabella deeply. Trouble is, Cousin Agnes has had her eye on him, and however skillful a plotter and manipulator Arabella thinks she is, her rival always seems to go her one better. Arabella may have Jeptha’s heart, but Agnes has many cards left to play. More importantly, neither girl has figured on Matthew, whose mastery of psychological bullying, combined with physical strength, make him an even deadlier opponent. When he decides he’ll have Arabella whether she wants or not, violence ensues, and she must eventually leave town.

San Francisco harbor, Yerba Buena Cove, 1850 or 1851 (Courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

San Francisco harbor, Yerba Buena Cove, 1850 or 1851 (Courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

From there, and not for the reasons you might expect, Belle, as she now fashions herself, becomes a prostitute, then a madam, making her fortune in gold rush San Francisco. She’s good at what she does, and she treats her employees well, but what that means becomes open to interpretation. A strength of Belle Cora is how deeply and thoroughly it examines the sex trade. Though the novel painstakingly reveals the hypocrisy of polite, so-called Christian society and how cruel, un-Christian, and immoral it actually is, Belle is no saint, either. She thinks of herself as a caring, warm-hearted person who believes in justice and fairness, and in many ways, that’s true. But she also recognizes that her “girls” are unlikely to live long, healthy lives; that they’ll suffer stigma they can never escape; and that she’s profiting off them.

The men who’ve tried, often successfully, to exploit Belle, are horrid, certainly, and deserve punishment. However, whether they merit it as she dishes it out is an open question. But Belle Cora is much more than a tale of romantic competition and revenge; Margulies’s narrative unravels nuances in the infinite calculus of relations between men and women. For instance, Belle must constantly hide who she is from people who shouldn’t know, including–especially–her family, a falseness that pervades her life in ways she wishes it didn’t. On the other hand, when secrets come out, they often explode, in predictable fashion. It doesn’t matter who she really is as a person, whether her critics are any more moral than she, or, more specifically, whether they’ve ever visited a house like hers. As Belle bitterly observes, no matter what a whore does to redeem herself, no matter what charitable works she devotes herself to, people will never treat her as anything but a whore. “The world,” she says, “holds murderers in far less contempt.”

You have to admire Margulies for tackling such a deep, complex subject, though I have to admit, it takes patience to read his six hundred pages, gifted storyteller though he is. But I do like his design, which, as the jacket flap claims, is to write in “the grand tradition of Moll Flanders and Vanity Fair,” about a good girl who becomes a bad woman. At her most manipulative, Belle indeed reminds me of Becky Sharp, Thackeray’s heroine in Vanity Fair, though Belle has more heart. But the character who kept coming to mind was George Bernard Shaw’s Kitty Warren of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, a thought-provoking play that stays with you much as Belle Cora does.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.