Arabella Godwin is an old lady when her life is shaken, quite literally, by one of San Francisco’s famous earthquakes. The disaster throws her together with a woman who remembers her, not as a rich society widow, but as the most infamous madam on the west coast.
Realizing that she has nothing to lose, Arabella finally sits down to write her own account of her early years. It is this memoir that makes up the bulk of Belle Cora.
Arabella was born into a comfortable merchant family, but the untimely death of her parents scattered the siblings, sending Arabella and her younger brother Lewis to live with relatives in the country. Farm life did not suit Arabella; but it was there she met Jeptha, who may just have been the love of her life.
Circumstances developed (I don’t want to give away the whole plot) that led Arabella to the gold rush town of San Francisco. She quickly worked her way up from being a prostitute to running one of the best brothels in the city. She also became known as the wife of the notorious gambler Charles Cora.
Of course a fast lifestyle came at a cost, and Belle paid that cost. She was still very young when she retired and started another life with a respectable man.
The narrative of Belle Cora– the story development and historical details- is good enough. It is populated with a supporting cast of interesting characters. But what makes it exceptional, in my mind, is the voice of Belle as an old woman looking back over her life. Her perspective, at once unashamed and defensive, really elevates the story.
I had not even finished Belle Cora before I started recommending it to people. I’m recommending it even more now.