Phillip Margulies' Belle Cora offers all this and more. Although this 600-page tome is actually a novel, not a real autobiography, its genesis was a real-life woman about whom little is known, an infamous madam from San Francisco's Gold Rush days. (Cora was her surname, which she obtained after marrying prominent gambler Charles Cora, legitimizing their longtime relationship. Or so the story goes.)
In addition, the writing quality elevates the novel above the dishy fare you might expect. Belle – or Arabella Godwin, Harriet Knowles, or one of the other names she assumes – has an educated mind and uses it. She narrates her riches-to-rags-to-riches (etc.) saga in a witty voice that combines the wisdom gained through a lifetime of hard-won experience with her observations on whatever segment of her life she’s relating.
Here’s the premise: following the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906, respected dowager Mrs. Frances Andersen decides to reveal the truth of her personal history, to the embarrassment of her heirs. It spans over 70 years, from a childhood of privilege in New York City’s Bowling Green neighborhood to her forced relocation to her resentful aunt’s farm near the Finger Lakes, her stint as a mill girl, her transformation into a high-class parlor house girl, then the shipboard voyage to California, heeding the call of adventure and riches.
Trouble arrives in the form of Belle’s cousin, Agnes, who becomes her perpetual rival and enemy – as does anyone falling into the category of “Good Christian Woman.” Throughout her life, Belle constantly veers between the paths of virtue and notoriety, the former while in pursuit of her true love, Jeptha Talbot, and the latter because it brings her wealth and power she can’t achieve otherwise. Reinventing herself becomes a forte, and so does illusion, both necessary in a scandalous profession where, she says, “we went to bed under the pretense that a forbidden romance was moving forward at impossible speed.”
The era’s social history is well detailed, from the peculiar Millerite movement (and its Great Disappointment) to the chaos of 1850s San Francisco, with its Vigilance Committees stockpiling power against the municipal government. The narrative bogs down in explaining all the details about the inner workings of city politics, but the aspects dealing with Belle’s emotional entanglements proceed at a cracking pace. Belle emerges triumphant, an American Moll Flanders who survives everything life throws at her and, in the end, has learned how to live, and to tell her story, without shame.
Belle Cora was published by Doubleday (hb) and Anchor (trade pb), with the latter appearing in October 2014 ($16.95, 608pp). I requested this via NetGalley some time ago and am embarrassed to have only gotten to it now; it's definitely worth the read.