Daisy Belle : Swimming Champion of the World by Caitlin Davies
I’m so pleased to be taking part in the blog tour for this captivating novel featuring such a resilient heroine.
Summer 1867: four-year-old Daisy Belle is about to make her debut at the Lambeth Baths in London. Her father, swimming professor Jeffrey Belle, is introducing his Family of Frogs – and Daisy is the star attraction. By the end of that day, she has only one ambition in life: she will be the greatest female swimmer in the world. She will race down the Thames, float in a whale tank, and challenge a man to a 70-foot high dive. And then she will set sail for America to swim across New York Harbour. But Victorian women weren’t supposed to swim, and Daisy Belle will have to fight every stroke of the way if she wants her dreams to come true. Inspired by the careers of Victorian champions Agnes Beckwith and Annie Luker, Daisy Belle is a story of courage and survival and a tribute to the swimmers of yesteryear.
I think the word that best sums up this beautiful novel is understated, and this is precisely what makes it so powerful. Daisy Mae Belle calmly and modestly recounts to us the story of her eventful life. She never sensationalises things, and she could on many, many occasions. As a young child she breaks moulds by swimming, and her father takes full advantage of her courage and determination to line his pockets. She’s upset by this at times but restrains her emotions. She remains low-key concerning her incredible feats of endurance and the tolls they take on her. When her little sister becomes her mother’s pet and Daisy is all but ignored, she accepts it and doesn’t dwell on how much it must hurt. This taking things in her stride makes us respect and admire Daisy all the more. And love her, I think. She’s a wonderful character – so honest and unassuming, a charming and unpretentious heroine.
The novel has not quite cycles, but definitely fore-shadowings. The Belles’ marriage isn’t a great one. Daisy’s father and mother are generally at loggerheads and there doesn’t seem to be much affection in the family, apart from between Daisy and her eldest brother Billy. Daisy’s own marriage to the handsome Dob doesn’t turn out to be quite what she hoped for either. Daisy’s once happy relationship with her mother as the adored and petted little girl of the family is replayed by Minnie who, like her big sister, eventually tires of her mother’s restrictions. Daisy sees how Captain Matthew Webb allows himself to be driven by the desire for more money into going too far, pushing himself beyond his limits, and she too finds herself tempted into taking on perhaps more than she should. Just as her father attempted to save someone who fell into the sea, so does Daisy, and ultimately neither rescue attempt ends well.
The novel is so eye-opening as regards the social norms of the time. Girls aren’t allowed to do boy things, like swim. Women are completely subservient to the men in their lives, although a few, including Daisy, make brave steps forward. However, they’re generally on some sort of rein. Poor Daisy has to make her epic swims in heavy, modesty-protecting outfits that must weigh a ton when wet!
There is so much fabulous imagery, particularly regarding water. After all, the whole novel is water-based, an water, as one character says, “makes you feel yourself”. The seaside, Margate, is depicted in vibrant blues with freshness and freedom in the air. The sea is alive. London, to which Daisy’s father drags them, has dead, dirty water. The baths seem oppressive, the Thames is menacing, the Aquarium is claustrophobic. Daisy is like the creatures there that are confined by their captivity.
Daisy travels to America, somewhere she’s long wanted to go, in an attempt to obtain fame and fortune – or at least the latter for Dob. This trip proves to be a key event in her life. Back home in England, her life begins to unravel and it’s heart-breaking, but remember, this is Daisy. And there is justice in the world, although it can take a while coming. Keep a tissue handy 😉
This novel is as buoyant as its heroine and will stay with you for a long time after you’ve read it. It’s marvellous.
About the author
Caitlin Davies was born in London in 1964. She spent 12 years in Botswana as a teacher and journalist and many of her books are set in the Okavango Delta, including a memoir Place of Reeds, described by Hilary Mantel as ‘candid and unsentimental’.
Her novels include The Ghost of Lily Painter, a fictional account of the arrest and execution of two Edwardian baby farmers, and Family Likeness about the fate of ‘war babies’ born to African American GI fathers in England during World War Two.
Her non-fiction books include Taking the Waters: A Swim Around Hampstead Heath, a celebration of 200 years of outdoor bathing, an illustrated history of the world famous Camden Lock Market, and Downstream: a history and celebration of swimming the River Thames.
Her latest non-fiction is Bad Girls, and her latest novel is Daisy Belle: Swimming Champion of the World, based on the lives of several Victorian aquatic stars, to be published by Unbound on September 1, 2018.
She is also a teacher and journalist, and was a regular feature writer for The Independent’s education and careers supplement. From 2014-17 she was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Westminster, Harrow, in the faculty of Media, Arts & Design.
Her website is http://www.caitlindavies.co.uk/
Daisy Belle Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/DaisyBelleSwimmingChampionoftheWorld/
- Paperback:240 pages
- Publisher:Unbound Digital (1 Sept. 2018)