Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice, by Paula Byrne – A Review

Belle by Paula Byrne 2014 x 200From 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 the 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 know 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 an 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.

Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle, once attributed to Zoffany 1779
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 mis-credited 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 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 where 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

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.

William Murray. 1st Earl of Mansfield

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 1980’s, 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. later known as Kenwood House, Hampstead Heath, near London
Caen Wood House, Hampstead Heath, 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 honestly, 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
ISBN: 978-0062310774

Cover image courtesy of Harper Perennial © 2014; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2014, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We purchased a copy of this book for our edification and enjoyment. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

15 thoughts on “Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice, by Paula Byrne – A Review

  1. Wonderful review! I also love things based on real-life people. I am going to see the film today, and I have the book all ready to read, hopefully very soon.

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  2. Great post Laurel, I have just purchased the book and look forward to reading it. It is such a shame however that not a great deal is known of her. Either way I think she would have been a very brave young woman to have lived in a society that in general did not welcome her.

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  3. Very nice and spot-on review Laurel Ann. I have read the book as well, but have alas! not seen the movie [doing so today, finally!] – Byrne expands on the chapter on this painting in her Austen biography “Small Things” – and the book “Belle” is a treasure [so is “Small Things”!] – so little known about Dido or her mother, yet Byrne tells the tales around them both – of a world where indeed such a portrait would have been shocking, such an equal-appearing relationship between a mulatto and a white unthinkable. What Austen knew of all this is the intriguing question – she does mention Elizabeth in her letters and does not think much of her – one of her famous caustic comments! – but of Lord Mansfield and the slavery question and Dido as a source for Fanny, we can never really know for sure – as too often in Jane Austen we can only conjecture, another of the many questions we would ask her if we could!

    I just hope that people don’t think it is a novelization of the movie, which its cover and marketing seem to promote – it is just a great piece of History…beautifully re-told by Byrne…

    Deb

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    • I just bought bought the book and I haven’t read it yet, but I think you are correct in that the packaging of it leads you to suppose that it’s more closely tied to the film. I prefer that it isn’t actually, it’s nice to know what is fact, what is surmise and what is pure fiction! I look forward to reading it.

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  4. Wonderful review, Laurel Ann. I started reading the book this past weekend — loved Byrne’s analysis of the double portrait in the opening chapter. I enjoyed the movie, too, and am glad to have the opportunity to read more about the story that inspired it.

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  5. I just requested this book at my local library- thanks for alerting me to it. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I have been wondering what the historical record is surrounding Dido Belle and Lord Mansfield. I can’t wait to read it!

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  6. I really enjoyed the movie, but I recognize now, even more than before, that it diverges sharply from historical fact in a number of ways. The movie has had the salutary effect of triggering a lot of Internet discussion of the history, and the following blog post summarizes two threads which I am pretty sure Byrne did not pick up on, and which the film definitely does not: http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-bigamist-captain-john-lindsay.html

    Basically, Captain John Lindsay was a bigamist, and I believe he is, along with his uncle Lord Mansfield, part of the allusive subtext beneath the disturbing character of Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park.

    Cheers, ARNIE
    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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  7. This is so very fascinating! Thank you for the great review with all your lovely pictures, Laurel Ann! I especially love the portrait of the two young women and your comments about it, and would love to see the original… It is so interesting to think about Jane Austen knowing Lord Mansfield and how it might have influenced her novel! Love the discussion your review has generated as well… I have ordered the book and will probably have to wait till I can purchase the movie to watch it, as our local theaters don’t tend to show these types of film very often… At least I haven’t found it, but will keep looking.

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  8. Just started reading the book. I was a little surprised to see that it’s not a novel per say, as I figured it would be because of the movie trailer (haven’t seen the film yet), but more of a history book. Which is fine, and I will read the whole thing. Thanks for the insights as I move forward!

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