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Belle Nash and the Bath Soufflé by William Keeling

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I am always really nervous when I get sent a book and asked to review it, especially when it’s by a new author, it’s their first published work and I don’t know if I am going to like it.

That being said, even if the book had been by my favourite author on earth (which changes week by week), it’s never possible to be 100% certain that I am going to like the book. Everyone has an off day.

When I was emailed and asked ‘would you be interested in this?’ I took a look at the website, read the blurb and immediately responded with ‘yes’ because it just ticked so many boxes for me. Despite this, I still had a moment of dread. What if I didn’t like it? What if it was really not my sort of book? What if it was a vanity project (and believe me when I say that I have read a fair few of those)?

The book in question is the first novel by William Keeling, Belle Nash and the Bath Soufflé.

This book is being promoted as the first in a series called The Gay Street Chronicles and, as you will discover as I continue, it is a series title with two meanings.

When Gaia Champion’s souffle fails to rise in 1830s Bath, it sets off a chain of events that overthrows the settled order. Centred on the personality of local councillor and bachelor extraordinaire Bellerophon ‘Belle’ Nash, this first volume of The Gay Street Chronicles engages with social issues that were emerging in the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign and still require our close attention today. A recurring cast of whimsical characters brings a gentle humour to the writing and to the strong feminist activism of Bath’s first Lady Magistrate.

This book is a clever commentary on the situation for women and homosexuals in a time when their rights were non-existent. Women weren’t allowed to vote, they were considered less than men and believed to have less intellect. Meanwhile, if you were caught committing any act of homosexuality you could be hanged. 

When I first read the title of the book I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. However, the book threw me a few curveballs.

The Belle of the book is named Bellerophon, but that’s a bit of a mouthful so kudos for him using the French word for Beauty instead, is a respected councillor in the city of Bath. 

He takes pride in his city and wants to make sure that it is treated with respect. He knows that there are limits to his powers, but he does everything he can to ensure that everything is maintained to the highest standards.

The tale starts with a celebration of Belle’s birthday at the home of his friend and relatively recently widowed Gaia Champion. Her beloved husband Hercules died suddenly a year previously and though she knows she is defying convention by walking out in something other than her widow’s weeds, she knows her husband wouldn’t want her to suspend living.

The evening is expected to be wonderful. Belle is going to enjoy the companionship of his second cousin once removed Gerhardt Kant, nephew of philosopher Immanuel as well as society maven, Lady Passmore, Mrs Pomeroy and the timid Miss Prim. It’s also expected that they will have the most divine food, courtesy of Gaia’s French-trained cook, Madame Galette.

Unfortunately, one cannot anticipate how a souffle is going to turn out, they are unpredictable. The guests at this dinner party are set for disappointment, when not only do the soufflés not rise, but the cake that Madame Galette has created is a disaster.

This disaster sets in motion the events that lead to an unexpected death, kidnapping and a very clever trick that makes enemies of powerful people and impresses others.

There are several smaller plots entangled with the main and though they all have their own conclusions, each element ties into the central one neatly, contributing to the ending incredibly well.

Of course, as I am a spoiler-free book review, I am not going to talk about the conclusion, merely some of the moments that lead up to it. I don’t want to do anything that would make you think ‘I don’t need to read this now’ because this book was most certainly unexpected.

As I have already said, Belle is incredibly loyal to Bath, he is also a very loyal and tolerant friend. He wants only the best for the people around him and everything he does contributes to that.

As I have already said, this all starts with a deflated souffle. But what seems simple and without any intrigue quickly becomes far more complex and vindictive than you would expect.

The cause of this unsuccessful meal can be laid firmly at the feet of one Hezekiah Porter, a shopkeep who is as corrupt as the day is long. He is selling the women of the town – as they are the ones who purchase his wares – flour that is contaminated with animal feed. There are those who are aware, such as the unseemly and distasteful Mrs Shirley Haytit, proprietress of a tearoom where they serve what sound like the most unappetising treats. He is in collusion with people in power in the city, including the distasteful but powerful Magistrate Obadiah Wood, the unlikeable councillor Mr Jacob Pollard and the obsequious toad Special Constable Decimus Dimm.

All of these men use their position to manipulate things that they dislike, especially any woman they feel is trying to improve her station or any man who shows a liking for things that they themselves feel are less than masculine.

Multiple times throughout the book, these three men prove that they are misogynistic, bigoted and just generally horrific human beings. However, they’re somewhat clever in their behaviours, only doing it when they are sure that it won’t be witnessed by people they consider their equals.

As soon as it’s discovered that Mr Porter’s produce is the cause of the failed food at an otherwise pleasant dinner party to celebrate Belle’s 35th birthday, the group set a plan in action. They are determined that whatever happens, they are going to drum this corrupt businessman, who so clearly has no respect for his customers, out of town. However, as often seems to be the case, the plan is not without its issues., in the form of the men already mentioned.

Porter is protected from accusation and prosecution by these men who, exactly like him, care little for anything but their powerful position. 

Gaia, Belle, and their friends, all do their utmost to ensure that Porter’s poor business practices are not only uncovered but that he is held accountable for selling contaminated foodstuffs, but things don’t go to plan.

Somehow, Porter has sensed that he is under the watchful eye of people who will not put up with his behaviour, and in a move that is definitely more villain than hero, we see two of the investigators, who are above reproach and certainly far from corrupt, accused of prostitution. The ever-righteous Lady Passmore and her loyal companion Mrs Pomfrey are arrested by Special Constable Decimus Dimm, and imprisoned while awaiting trial.

No cosy crime is without murder. But I am not sure if you can call the sudden death of Obadiah Wood (who I keep on thinking of as Obadiah Stane, MCU stan that I am) and his death by rancid butter on a crumpet as murder. Especially as he is partly at fault for contaminated goods being for sale in the establishment where he meets his end. Personally, I would say that he was most certainly hoist by his own petard!

From this moment onwards, without the powerful Magistrate in their corner, things spiral out of control for the unlikeable villains of the piece.

There is a visit from young Princess Victoria, as this book takes place 6 years before she takes the throne as Queen. There is a kidnapping, an arrest, a trial, a new hiring and a scandal. But to reveal all of these would be to reveal the book in its entirety, and you do not want me to do that.

Needless to say, this book is one that is part social commentary, part comedic farce and part historical account. All of these combined make for a bit of a romp.

There are a few things which struck me the moment I started the book. One is the style of writing, it is as though William Keeling has managed to combine the wit and wisdom of Austen – whom I LOVE with a passion – and the slightly darker more depressing aspects of the time I would more closely associate with Charles Dickens. Together this makes for some very clever and entertaining storytelling. 

Belle, Gaia, Gerhardt and even Lucius Lush could be straight out of one of Austen’s scenes at a society party. One where we have the elegant but insulting Mr Darcy talking with the witty Miss Elizabeth Bennett, observing the actions of those around them with a few subtle digs about pomp and ceremony. While characters who fit their names so appropriately such as Miss Phyllis Prim, Mrs Shirley Haytit, Mrs Crust and Mr Decimus Dimm could have easily walked off the pages of a book like Martin Chuzzlewit.

Another thing that struck me about the names of our central characters was their strong ties to mythology. 

Bellerophon was the son of Poseidon, a Corinthian hero who battled and killed the Chimera, a fire-breathing hybrid lion goat and snake. He was also gifted with the winged Pegasus, a creature he was able to tame. In some ways, the Belle from this book is like his namesake; the son of a famed and well-loved councillor of Bath well-known for being kind-hearted. Belle also wants to make his mark and live up to his father’s powerful reputation.

Gaia is another name that takes a lot to live up to. She is the personification of the earth. A primordial deity from whence all Titans and then the Olympian house were said to be descended. 

Though clearly, Gaia Champion is not the Earth mother of old, she is the first of her kind, she is set apart by her intellect, her leadership, her determination and she is not one to be trifled with. Something that the men of Bath will soon come to realise. She is also set uncomfortable and unpleasant tasks that she has no choice but to take action, but she proves herself willing to carry them out because she knows she has bigger battles to win. 

And quite clearly, her surname is another sign of her purpose in the novel. She is a champion!

As I have already mentioned, there are multiple smaller plots set in amongst the core, and one of these is the tale of Gerhardt, and Lucius. Now, Lucius is the great-grandson of the Chairman of the council, a kindly and somewhat oblivious old man who puts his trust in those elected officials to do their jobs. As an assistant to Belle, he carries out multiple tasks, one of which is to distract young Gerhardt and keep him busy while Belle is tending to his own tasks on the council.

Of course, this ends up being a distraction that causes considerable trouble, but the fun that is had by both young men is explained as innocent and joyous and sometimes odd. There is an incident involving a music teacher, an imaginary baby’s crib and some unusual attempts at baby talk that I will leave you to discover for yourself.

As I am talking about the characters, it’s important to mention that they live the life they want. They are not unaware of the consequences because of the time they are living in, but you can’t choose who you love or how you love and they are honest about it. They are kind, caring and concerned characters and that is the core of who they are. 

Unfortunately, because of the time they are living in, those who wish to manipulate the system have more tools at their disposal and no hesitation in doing so when it becomes clear that their livelihood is at risk should their serious misdeeds be discovered. I have already briefly touched upon the punishment that could be meted out by a court of law if any men were caught together in flagrante, and the last time men were executed for acts of homosexuality was in London in 1835.

That such corrupt officials in this book held the threat of death over Belle’s head for doing his job is deplorable and made Porter, Wood, Pollard and Dimm worse villains to my mind.

Another thing that was different and kept me entertained throughout were the brief historical notes that appeared at the end of each creatively titled chapter. Information about real characters of note, mention of Greek mythology, and footnotes about people like Mary Wollstonecraft, the horrific tale of what happened to some poor cats at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the First, and an Indian philosophy text from the early second millennium, meaning up to 1000 years ago, called The Vedas.

This is something rarely seen in fiction novels, and it’s a creative way to impart information without it feeling shoehorned in without purpose, in my view.

I feel as though the book was written for people like me. I love Austen, I love the regency period, and I love things with an element of historical accuracy. For some reason, I can’t help thinking about how disappointed I was in the inaccuracies that filled the pages of Bridgerton and the latest from Sarah McLean, Bombshell

And then I opened the book and read the dedication. Hello, 1980s teenager here. Present me with a dedication quoting one of my favourite songs from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and I am here for it all the way.

I can honestly say that there isn’t a character in this book that I felt nothing for. Whether that emotion was dislike, indifference, admiration or ‘they’d be the best person at a party’ I felt something. 

Sure, at the beginning the mystery felt as though it would be a five-second wonder – much like the murder in There Goes the Bride (which I am still trying to not feel bitter about) – but I was pleasantly surprised to find there were twists and turns that led to an unpredictable and somewhat heartbreaking conclusion. For that I can only say that I am very grateful to the author, I like surprises in my reading!

Though this has no bearing on my reading of the book I do have to add here that I LOVED the cover and the way that the book was so easy to hold. The cover looks like the front page of a broadsheet and the book itself is bound really well, not a single crease in the spine despite having been cracked open multiple times, and I don’t think any pages will be falling out of it any time soon.

Pros

  • Creative, informative, intriguing
  • Not a flash in the pan mystery

Cons

  • No release date for the sequel yet
4-star rating

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