It was tough for women in nineteenth-century America—and, indeed, throughout most of history. A woman who gave into a man, even a man who promised to marry her, and ended up pregnant soon discovered that all the burden and the shame fell on her. He could, if he chose, denounce her as loose and walk away scot-free.
Such is the situation that Annie—the heroine of Jody Hadlock’s debut novel, The Lives of Diamond Bessie—finds herself in. When we first meet her, she has been renamed Elisabeth and confined to a convent near Buffalo, NY. She soon gives birth to a daughter, whom the nuns wrest from her arms before she has a chance to protest, and when she escapes, intending to make enough money to reclaim her baby, she discovers that only the “world’s oldest profession” will allow her to support herself. The child’s father denies all responsibility. Adapting her convent name, Annie establishes a new life for herself as Bessie. But before long, she learns that her daughter has died.
After a long period of mourning, Bessie leaves New York for Chicago, where she enters a high-class brothel. She’s doing very well for herself when a chance encounter with a handsome grifter sends her off on a different trajectory.
It would be unfair to go farther into the plot than this. Suffice it to say that Bessie’s complex story is well told, even riveting. At times I wanted to shake her for her willful pursuit of a love that seemed too good to be true, but her goals were crystal clear, and I never stopped pulling for her to attain them.
The Lives of Diamond Bessie is your first novel. What made you decide to write fiction?
I’d always wanted to write a novel, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write until I learned about Bessie’s story. I also love history, going back as far as junior high when I was a member of the Junior Historians of Texas, and I read a lot of historical fiction, so it’s no surprise, to me that my first novel is historical.
And what drew you to this particular story?
I learned of Diamond Bessie during a visit to Jefferson, Texas, which is three hours east of Dallas. I’d never heard of Jefferson, even though I grew up in a Dallas suburb. I was amazed to learn that it was a booming inland riverport in the mid-1800s. At Jefferson’s historical museum there was a full-page newspaper article about Bessie and Abe Rothschild on display. It was published in a Dallas newspaper in the 1930s. I thought, “Why in the world was this paper interested in something that happened nearly sixty years earlier in a tiny town a few hours away?” And I had another thought, but I don’t want to give away the plot for those not familiar with the story. I was immediately hooked and knew I had found what I wanted to write.
When we first meet Bessie, whose birth name is Annie, she’s living in Buffalo, New York, with a group of nuns who call her Elisabeth. Explain, please, what she’s doing there and what her life with the nuns is like.
In the nineteenth, and for some of the twentieth, century, if you were a young woman and had sex outside of marriage or were even just considered “at risk” of doing so—or God forbid, you got pregnant out of wedlock—you were often sent to a place for “fallen” or “wayward” women. One of these was the Sisters of Good Shepherd, founded by nuns in France and brought to the United States in the mid-1800s.
I found a few memoirs written by women who had lived in these convents, which informed the first few chapters of my novel. Young women, and even young girls, who were sent to these places were told they were starting new lives. They were given new names and were forbidden from talking about their pasts, including their families. They were supposed to have a fresh start. Unfortunately, there are many accounts of abuse in these places, which had incredibly strict rules.
Not much is known about Bessie leading up to when she became a prostitute, so the first part of my novel is more fictional than fact. My main character was known as Bessie in real life as a prostitute. Most demi-mondaines used a stage name. For her fictional time at the convent, I decided on the name Elisabeth, one of the patron saints of pregnancy, and I used the French spelling of the name because the convent in Buffalo was founded by French nuns. Bessie is also a nickname for Elizabeth.
Bessie escapes early on, intending to return home but ending up in Watertown, New York. What is her situation at this point, and how does it determine her future path in life?
Bessie knew she couldn’t return home to Canton in far upstate New York and she also couldn’t stay in Buffalo because, if found, she would have been taken back to the convent. In real life, Bessie ended up in Watertown. I portray her as arriving with nothing, not knowing anyone, and how the societal constraints at the time affected the choices she ends up making.
After a while, Bessie leaves New York for Chicago, where she eventually runs into Abe Rothschild. Tell us about him.
Abe, the antagonist of the story, was a real person—and a cad. He was the eldest son of a wealthy businessman in Cincinnati and worked as a traveling salesman, known as a “drummer” back then because they drummed up business. Unfortunately, Abe liked gambling more than work. Bessie had to have seen some good in him in the beginning, so I had to write him as three-dimensional, so to speak, and not just as being a horrible person. It was difficult because I don’t like him!
Without giving away spoilers, can you hint at why your title is The Lives of Diamond Bessie, not The Life of Diamond Bessie? And why did you decide to add this supernatural dimension to your book?
The title came from a fellow writer at the Aspen Words summer conference. There were six of us in one of the workshops, critiquing each other’s full manuscripts. The title of my novel at the time was Land of Lost Souls, which I liked. The workshop leader, the late Vanity Fair and Simon & Schuster editor George Hodgman, suggested that it be just Diamond Bessie. That’s when a fellow writer suggested The Lives of Diamond Bessie because of the way the story is structured. As soon as he said it, I knew it was the perfect title. And luckily my publisher agreed!
My novel has a supernatural element because I wanted the story to continue after the “big event.” I didn’t want it to end on that tragic note and because so much happens afterwards. I decided this was the best way to tell the whole story.
This novel just came out. Do you already have another in the works?
Yes, it’s a story I learned of while researching Diamond Bessie. I don’t want to give too much away, but it will be set in the United States and Russia from the late 1850s to the 1880s and will probably feature two women as the main characters. I was planning to visit Russia next year (in 2023), but with the situation in Ukraine now, I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it there. If needed, hopefully I’ll be able to finish my research remotely. I also have another idea for a novel, which would also be set in the 1800s, but it’s very much in the embryonic stage.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Thank you for including me!
After studying journalism at Texas A&M University, Jody Hadlock was a television news reporter and anchor in Bryan-College Station, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; and San Antonio, Texas. The Lives of Diamond Bessie is her first novel. Find out more about her and her writing at http://www.jodyhadlock.com. She can also be found on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/jodyhadlock.
Map of Jefferson, Texas, in 1872 public domain via Wikimedia Commons.