Bella is based on a real historical event, which over the years has become mythologized. All that we know for certain is as follows. In 1943 four boys discovered a woman’s skeletal remains, wedged inside the hollow trunk of a wych elm in Hagley Wood. Some time later messages began to appear in the local area, written in chalk. Over and over they posed the same question: Who put Bella in the Wych Elm? This is the compost from which the novel derives its nourishment.
Like the graffito in Goulston Street associated with one of the Jack the Ripper murders, the messages (written by the same hand) might have been left by the murderer or, as is more likely, by a hoaxer. Nevertheless, they introduce a name for the unidentified murdered woman – Bella – and this has led to various spurious identifications. One suggestion is that she was a prostitute working on the Hagley Road in Birmingham, another that she was a Dutch woman called Clarabella Dronkers, killed by a German spy-ring.
From this raw material RM Francis has constructed a centripetal work, which spirals ever inwards, returning again and again to its obsession with the figure of Bella in the Wych Elm. The various narrators – for there are several in this book – add layer upon layer, like the growth rings of a tree. It is consequently a polyphonic work, which even includes Bella’s imagined disembodied voice.
Each of these voices is intimately linked to its Black Country setting. Even the place name of Netherton is suggestive – nether meaning lower, as in the nether world. Saltwells Nature Reserve, however, is the focus of the story – a liminal place in a former industrial region, but also an area that is rich in fossils such as trilobites.
In terms of symbolism, one should note that the elm is often associated in folklore with death, and the wood was traditionally used to make coffins. Likewise the figure of Bella is very much a guardian spirit, a genius loci. Sid, one of the Asian characters, refers to her as a Qarin – a spiritual double. Appropriately, James Whale, the director of the original Frankenstein film of 1931, was born in Dudley. His ‘creature’ is, of course, yet another golem figure.
A sense of outsider status is frequently conveyed, whether in terms of social class, religion, ethnicity or, above all, sexuality. The homosexual encounters between Tim and Dave have the kind of authenticity that one encounters in William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. Tim is the archetypal outsider in this respect, who becomes a target of homophobia, and the spectre of the 1990s AIDS epidemic is also invoked, with Dave its obligatory victim.
Even the schoolteacher, Joyce, recounts a frustrated lesbian love affair from her childhood, which is violently repressed with catastrophic consequences. She also provides an eyewitness account of the events that culminated in Bella’s death.
Although the book is mostly written in the dialect of the area, one soon becomes attuned to it. Sometimes, though, the vocabulary and phrasing seems not entirely credible in terms of who is speaking. For instance, I feel that the ventriloquism is off with the character of Sheena in the following extract ‘…most times you move from the off-white, pebbledash of the Priory estate, into the tall slate and ash of dormant factory works, and then into the slick clay, weeds, nettles and brittle trees of somewhere like Wren’s Nest Nature Reserve.’ Despite being an example of fine writing, this sounds too poetic for this particular voice.
From a purely typographical point of view I also noticed some large gaps between words as I was reading and then realised that the publishers had decided not to use any hyphenation. It’s an odd choice, but it shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of this queer little book.