From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
Commissioned by the producers of the new movie Belle, acclaimed biographer Paula Byrne aims to reveal the true story behind the main characters in the movie: Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy and an African slave, and her great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (1705-93) and Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice is both a companion volume to the popular movie and a time capsule into the turbulent abolition movement in late eighteenth-century England.
Inspired by the 1779 portrait of Dido and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, screenwriter Misan Sagay has written a compelling story based on facts she first learned of while visiting the 2007 Slavery and Justice Exhibition. Dido and Elizabeth were Lord Mansfield’s wards and raised together at Caen Wood House, now known as Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath near London. While the screenplay is based on actual facts, it also incorporates a fictional narrative worthy of a seventh Jane Austen novel. In contrast, Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice is a historical account of the people and times and not a novelization of the movie.
Movies (and novels) based on real people and events always intrigue me, especially those set in my favorite time period, Georgian England. I was aware of the Jane Austen connection to this story from a JASNA Persuasions Online article Ambiguous Cousinship: Mansfield Park and the Mansfield Family, by Christine Kenyon Jones. We know from Austen’s letters that she met Dido’s cousin Lady Elizabeth Finch-Hatton (nee Murray) several times from 1805-1813 while visiting her elder brother Edward in Kent. If Lady Finch-Hatton or Austen’s family revealed the story of the two cousins is uncertain, but she would have known of their guardian Lord Mansfield’s significant 1772 ruling against slavery. There are also many striking similarities beyond her use of Mansfield in the title of her third novel. Was Austen’s heroine Fanny Price inspired by the circumstances of Dido Elizabeth Belle and the strong winds against slavery in the air? Fanny is not black, but she is a slave to the Bertram’s all the same. Janeites will be also pleased to find that Byrne has included an appendix detailing Jane Austen’s Mansfield Connection.
Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Elizabeth Belle,
attributed to Johann Zoffany (1779)
Dido’s story begins justly with the inspiration to the movie—the girl in the picture. This is the perfect setup for those (like me) who are fascinated by portraiture during this era. Attributed to Johann Zoffany, who has also been miscredited for a portrait of a young girl strongly thought to be Jane Austen, the painting is indicative of this time portraying so much more than the subject’s likeness. Through composition, color, light, and iconography the artist reveals their sitter’s personality and social status through a choice of clothing, position and attitude, objects that they hold or are placed near them, and the landscape that they are situated within. However, this portrait of two young women is significant beyond its subject’s beauty, or its artistic merits; it displays two finely dressed young women, one white and one black, positioned as equals. This mixed-race pairing, when African people were considered inferior and presumed to be slaves because of the color of their skin, would have been shocking to eighteenth-century society. The fact that Lord Mansfield commissioned the portrait of his two nieces together is a testament to his beliefs and his underlying commitment to aid, through his rulings on British law, the abolition of slavery. That is the axis of the movie and this book.
Captain, Sir John Lindsay, by Alan Ramsay 1768
In subsequent chapters, Byrne continues to reveal what is known of Dido’s father, Sir John Lindsay (1737-1788), a captain in the Royal Navy and later Rear Admiral of the Red, and her mother Maria Belle, his prisoner after capturing a Spanish ship bound for the West Indies. Chapters continue on William Murray, the most distinguished and powerful lawyer of his day, sugar plantations in the English colonies, Liverpool as a hub of import and despair, the anti-slavery movement, Murray and the Zong massacre, and the eventual marriage of Dido and her death.
The Right Honourable, William Murray. 1st Earl of Mansfield
In 1772, William Murray, the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench ruled that no slave could be taken from England or Wales under force, saying: “The state of slavery is of such a nature and so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it”. This judgement was a crucial early step towards the international abolition of slavery.
While much is known about Britain’s slave trade economy during this time, and Murray’s legal decisions that helped to abolish slavery, history reveals only basic information about our main subject, Dido Elizabeth Belle. She was, after all, not a public figure, but a mixed-race woman during a time of great prejudice and persecution who was educated to be a lady, yet was not welcome in that social sphere. Her personal story had been forgotten with time—even by the Murray family who still own the portrait. Until the 1980s, they assumed that the young black woman next to their kinswoman Lady Elizabeth Murray was her servant. Bell: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice thoughtfully reveals how Dido’s story is both emotionally moving and historically significance.
Caen Wood House, Hampstead Heath, the residence of Lord Mansfield
later known as Kenwood House
Byrne’s research and writing was as enjoyable as her approach to The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. She has the ability to mine gold from dry facts and spin them into a bewitching web for the modern reader. While the historical details about the slave trade and the abolition movement were very interesting, there is very little detail about the main subject, Dido Elizabeth Belle. No letters, no diaries or family recollections of Dido survive. Only historical documentation: her christening, her marriage, her inheritances and her death. At first I felt deceived by the title and cover. Was this really her story? No, in all honesty, it is not. But on deeper reflection, the fictionalized movie gave me what I craved: the personal drama, romance and moving character arc. In this instance it is her portrait, the people and history surrounding her that tell us the story of a young woman who changed the outcome of slavery by just being herself.
4 out of 5 Regency Stars
Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice, by Paula Byrne
Harper Perennial (2014)
Trade paperback (304) pages
Cover image courtesy of Harper Perennial © 2014; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2014, Austenprose.com
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