Jilly: How Would You Tell This Story?


Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, attributed to Johann Zoffany
(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

I discovered a fascinating character last weekend.

My mother-in-law came to stay for a few days, so we went to visit the newly refurbished Kenwood House. The place is stunning, with the most gorgeous library ever – a delicate confection of pale blues, pinks and greens, elaborate plasterwork and painted ceilings. If ever there was a setting for a handsome, aristocratic hero to woo his lady love, this is it.

The library had already made my day when I saw the picture of one of the people who originally enjoyed it. Check out the breathtakingly beautiful dark-skinned young woman in the painting. Her name is Dido Belle, and she lived at Kenwood for more than thirty years, from the early 1760s until her marriage in 1793.

Dido was the daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman called Maria Belle. She was born in the West Indies in about 1761, but was sent to England to live in the household of Admiral Lindsay’s uncle, William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield. There were three social strikes against her – she was the child of a slave and therefore potentially a slave herself, she was illegitimate, and she was of mixed race – but nonetheless she was raised by Lord Mansfield and his wife as a free gentlewoman.

Mansfield and his wife had no children of their own, but they also raised their great-niece Lady Elizabeth Murray, the other young woman in the painting, after her mother’s death. It seems Dido and Elizabeth were brought up together, well-educated and well-loved, though as a blue-blooded heiress Elizabeth’s financial and social status was immeasurably superior. Dido’s annual allowance was £30 10s, less than one-third of her cousin’s £100, but many times a servant’s wage.

Dido’s social position was ambiguous. When guests visited she did not dine with the family, but she did join the ladies for coffee afterwards. She looked after the dairy, which was a genteel occupation, and most interestingly of all she helped Lord Mansfield with his correspondence, a job which would normally have been done by a (male) secretary or clerk. Apparently one visitor said Mansfield “called upon (her) … every minute for this and that, and showed the greatest attention to everything she said.”

It’s a pity we have no idea what they talked about, because Lord Mansfield was Lord Chief Justice, England’s most powerful judge, and his decisions had huge ramifications for the slave trade. If you put that kind of coincidence in a novel, you’d be laughed out of the bookshop. Although Mansfield was considered to be a moderate, he made a landmark judgement in 1772 that prevented a master from forcibly returning a slave to the Caribbean. He spoke strongly about the repugnance of slavery and the case was interpreted as meaning that slavery was not legal in England. He followed that up with another case in 1782 (the Zong massacre case) where again he found against the slavers.

When Lord Mansfield died in 1793, he specifically confirmed in his will that Dido Belle was a free woman. He left her a lump sum of £500 and an annuity of £100. Her father had also left her money on his death in 1788, so she was financially independent. She married John Davinier, a Frenchman who worked as a gentleman’s steward, bore him three sons, and died in 1804 at the age of 43.

So little is known about Dido that there is plenty of room for speculation, and many ways to join the dots. One version of her story will be coming to a screen near you later this year. ‘Belle‘, directed by Amma Asante and starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, premiered at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival. It will be released in the US in May and the UK in June. According to reviews, the movie shows Davinier as an aspiring young lawyer apprenticed to Mansfield, Belle’s love for Davinier causing a rift with Mansfield that forces him to re-evaluate his views on slavery, and Belle being pivotal in the Zong case, leaking important information and rushing to the courtroom for the verdict.

There doesn’t seem to be any evidence to support this interpretation, and according to Wikipedia the movie is a work of historical fiction that employs ‘considerable artistic license.’ I can see that if the aim was to make a story about slavery (particularly significant right now) with Dido as the heroine and a plot that would resonate with a modern audience, this would be a logical construction.

I don’t think it would be mine, but it set me wondering how I would approach it. My first reaction (without having seen the movie) was that this version does Mansfield a disservice. Here are some of the story building blocks that have been floating around in my mind this week:

  • Why did Admiral Lindsay send Dido to England? Dido’s mother Maria ended up in Florida, where Admiral Lindsay gave her land and property. Presumably it would have been less embarrassing for all concerned for Dido to have accompanied her mother to America. Did her mother think her beautiful girl would be safer in England, under the protection of Lindsay’s powerful family, or was it Admiral Lindsay’s decision?
  • How did Lady Mansfield feel about taking Dido into her home, especially when she grew up to be so smart and beautiful and so close to Lord Mansfield. Did she love Dido like the daughter she couldn’t have, or was she jealous and suspicious?
  • What was life like for the two girls, brought up in a life of privilege together but with a clear gulf between them?
  • Even if Lord Mansfield agreed to help his nephew by taking responsibility for Dido, he did not have to give her social status, an excellent education, and financial and legal independence. Even the beautiful painting is a public statement of Dido’s status within the household. Mansfield must have been a remarkably enlightened and courageous man even before Dido grew up to be such an impressive young woman.
  • Dido must have influenced Mansfield’s opinions on slavery. What did they discuss, while she was helping with his correspondence and he was listening with great attention to everything she said?
  • Where does John Davinier fit into the picture? Nothing is known about him except that Dido married him shortly after Mansfield’s death, when she was 32. That’s very old to marry for the first time, and even older to start a family of her own. When did they meet? Was it a love match, or something more pragmatic?

There’s a book in Admiral Lindsay (swashbuckling, uniformed, leader of men) and Maria Belle (stunningly beautiful, most likely smart, slave). He went back to sea, but he took care of his own. Maria went to Florida with his help, and their child was sent to London to be brought up as a lady.

The most complete story must be Mansfield, taking on a baby, raising Dido as a gentlewoman despite the social standards of the time, educating her and encouraging her to use her brain, fighting to change the law to keep her and people like her safe, and making her secure with the last act of his life.

I’m a romance writer, so my story would have to be Dido and John Davinier’s love story. It’s frustrating that John is so shadowy and appears so late in proceedings. For the story to work, I think they’d have to have met earlier, or know each other but be unable to marry. I’d have the impediment be Dido’s legal status – she was technically a slave, protected by Mansfield’s powerful position. Dido and John can’t be together, so he never marries, and she works with her great-uncle to outlaw slavery, they achieve some landmark victories, but he dies before their work is done (dark moment). Maybe Mansfield’s opponents try to get their hands on Dido and her money. Her uncle’s will confirms once and for all that she is free, and that allows her to marry her true love and live happily ever after. Needs a lot of work, I know, but I like it.

Nobody knows what really happened, but what do you think?   

20 thoughts on “Jilly: How Would You Tell This Story?

  1. Absolutely fascinating. She must have been a charming young woman to overcome the stigma of illegitimacy. I wonder which element caused more drama in her life? Her skin color, or her birth?

    I don’t know what I’d get out of her story. Belle vs. Mansfield? But I’d like to think that there was no great drama there — that Mansfield slowly came to realize over the course of years that skin color was not a prerequisite to being a human being. Or perhaps he always knew that, and could point at Dido Belle as being a great example.

    I tend to think that skin-color really shouldn’t count for a lot, but it would make a huge difference to the romance if Davinier was white, black or mixed-race.

    Her early death kind makes me think she died in childbirth — I could be wrong, of course, because there were so many nasty ways to die young back then. I wonder what happened to her children . . . .

    Thanks for sharing this!

    P.S. This BBC article chases down some of the facts about Dido Elizabeth Belle. http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2007/02/27/insideout_abolition_special_feature.shtml

    I’m sure there’s a great fantasy or science fiction story in here, somewhere, but it’d be very hard to do without making it dated. SFF has been tackling interspecies relationships for a very long time, so simply stating in an SFnal romance that “their love was doomed because they were from different races” would be hooted right out of the space station. I think any approach would have to be from the cultural differences that caused road blocks in the relationships (if the author even wanted to go at it from that angle — in a lot of modern SF, mixed race relationships are often taken as a matter of course, and the barriers are very individual to the couple).

    • I’d like to think Mansfield always knew, and his nephew, the Admiral. One less generous possibility is that the family thought she would make a good companion for Lady Elizabeth, and then as she grew up they came to value her for herself.

      Davinier was white. I haven’t managed to find out much about their children, except that the last of their line was a great-great grandson, who died in South Africa, in 1975. He was a retired mechanic, unmarried, with no children, and his death certificate described him as white.

      I think there’s always a way to make a Romeo & Juliet type environment, even with SF&F inter-species romance – maybe create two species that have been at war for millennia. Or where one is naturally a danger to the other. Loads of choices if you’re inventing the world 🙂

    • Exactly, Jeanne. Zoffany did a wonderful job. Dido looks full of energy, and wit, and character; the comparison makes her cousin look insipid.

  2. Are you seriously contemplating writing this, or is it just an intellectual exercise? There is a lot of great stuff here (obviously). But I can’t really get a sense of what the story would be since the antagonist is kind of MIA. Legal status can be an impediment, yes, but not an antagonist (no push back). You could do something awesome with the opponents trying to get their hands on the money, though! Maybe a relative who thinks he needs the money to, I don’t know, save his shipping business or something. Oooh, and you could make him a slave trader! And if he’s a relative (who else would realistically stand a chance of getting the money, right?) he could either always have been disliked and mistrusted by the family, or he could have been loved and trusted and then his true nature and betrayal would make a great Dark Moment. I think betrayal always makes for a strong dark moment because you have bad things happening in the physical world (he ties Dido up and kidnaps her or whatever) and it’s made so much more powerful by the simultaneous emotional violence.

    Okay, sorry, got a little carried away. 🙂 Thanks for sharing such a wonderful bit of history and that gorgeous painting!

    • No, just playing ‘What If?’. I have enough stories to write to keep me busy for the foreseeable, and I’m not well-enough informed to write historicals. I saw the painting last weekend and thought Dido was such a fascinating character that I wanted to know more. So I followed up and discovered that Amma Asante had just made a movie about her and that its general release was imminent. When I read the reviews, I thought ‘that’s not how I would have told it,’ which set me to wondering how I would have assembled the pieces. Even though I wasn’t planning to write the story, it’s fun to speculate, and that kind of creative play can feed my inner story-teller.

      I like your version, though. I suspect once Dido got out of the shelter of Mansfield’s protection she’d have found no shortage of antagonists.

      • Whoops! I thought when you asked “What do you think” you were asking for feedback. My bad.

        I guess you were asking what kind of ideas this would inspire for us? Oh, fun! Let’s see, I can’t work within the historical facts, that’s for sure. My protagonist would be Elizabeth’s suitor. He would be a wealthy aristocrat, smart, reserved, reasonably fit, but with a low though benevolent opinion of women’s intellect. We need an antagonist, so let’s give him a beautiful, intelligent mistress who fosters his belief in women’s mental inferiority. He courts Elizabeth because she is appropriate “wife” material- demure, well-off, respectable, docile. His mistress approves- Elizabeth would be no threat to her. However, our hero, frequently in Dido’s company while courting Elizabeth, falls for Dido in all her brilliantly intelligent social unacceptability. The mistress recognizes this as it’s happening, and her attempts to prevent the romance escalate accordingly, from first spreading rumors of Dido’s supposed promiscuity to ultimately attempting to murder her. The mistress loses, of course, and our hero marries Dido. They live happily ever after on the fringes of society, not quite evicted from the social scene because of our hero’s wealth and rank, and not caring in the least.

        Or something like that, anyway. Sorry, typing faster than I’m thinking probably, and now company has arrived so I’ve no time to reread. Apologies in advance for errors!

        • Ooh, I like that, a lot! Our hero realises that the right woman has brains and backbone, not gentle birth and untold riches, and our girl gets a man who’s worthy of her, once he’s been disabused of the cloth-headed notions his sneaky mistress has inculcated. I assume Dido sees off the mistress in a death-match of high intellect and low cunning,rather than being rescued?

        • I don’t think Dido could be the one to defeat the mistress in this tale, since in my version the hero is the protagonist and he has to be the one to defeat the antagonist. But Dido definitely doesn’t just “get rescued.” I think a working together rescue would be best here, although it needs to be from the hero’s POV. It would cement the romantic relationship even further, it would reinforce our hero’s new understanding of and respect for women (both of Dido and of his mistress), and in my story it would be important for Dido as well. She needs to learn to work together with a man, instead of only working for him or working against him. She has issues (no kidding, right?).

          This was fun. Thanks Jilly!

  3. I love the painting…I think it shows a friendship between the two girls that is charming. Of course, the story elements are something I’d go nuts for! It’d be interesting to see if I could weave this story into one of my own…then again, I think you’ve called first dibs on this one, Jilly!

    • Feel free, Justine, there’s good stuff here. If you find something that would enrich your story, I’d be very happy with my day’s work 🙂

  4. One thing that’s interesting to me is that Mansfield evidently did not state forever and unequivocally that Dido was free except in his will, which of course wasn’t made public until after he died. This is reminiscent of the U.S. president Thomas Jefferson, although it was actually his daughter who freed Sally Hemings, the slave with whom he’d had six children, after his death. When Jefferson took Sally Hemings to France, she could have stayed there as a free woman, because France had outlawed slavery in the revolution. But she went back to Virginia with Jefferson, probably because she was pregnant and most of her family was there. It’s possible that Dido stayed with Mansfield for so long because of course she loved him, because he’d raised her, and that’s the only place she felt comfortable and safe—not exactly Stockholm syndrome, probably more of a thicket of love and practicality. And then when she was freed, she took advantage of it to live the life she would have enjoyed sooner if her status was more clear. Really interesting story, Jilly!

    • Yes, it is very interesting that Mansfield didn’t officially confirm Dido’s freedom until after his death. I wonder why. Maybe it would only have become important if she’d wanted to move outside his protection, which I guess would have been only if she received an offer of marriage. I wonder if she would have moved on sooner if her status was more clear – not only was she loved and protected, but Mansfield was very wealthy and her lifestyle at Kenwood was luxurious. Her later married life was comfortable but not so luxe.

      I didn’t know about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Thanks for that, Kay – there go another few hours of surfing time!

      • I wonder if confirming her free status would have attracted more attention than he wanted. If she had an ambiguous status, then that could protect her from lechers as long as Mansfield was alive.

        I think there must have been love and duty both involved in the Mansfield/Dido relationship.

        I wonder how much of her subsequent marriage was also seeking the protection that marriage could provide a woman. But, OTOH, she married another “outsider” — as a Frenchman, Davinier would understand what it meant to be outside of British society slightly. And as a high-level servant, he’d probably understand that aspect of Dido’s life, as well.

        So interesting. I wish there was more information about their lives.

  5. What a great painting and great story, I can see why you’d want to write something about her. I love finding new bits and pieces on people from history, there are so many fascinating stories out there that could inspire so much 🙂

  6. I have been interested in this story a lot too since I saw the trailer. From what I have seen I wish the forthcoming movie would have followed history and given John Davinier’s character another purpose in her life. He was not English as the movie protrays but french from what I have read. To determine where he was, research should be done on his five children ( 3 with Dido). Someone asked in a forum, if he was a free black man of french origin something that could also be explored . This is important because if he came to England in 1780’s, it would have been around the time of the french revolution and he would have been able to influence her way of thinking in regards to her (real) freedom. It is to be noted that French black slaves were freed during the revolution. I think that there could be lot of scandalous plots and twists to this story. More info on dido especially how she lived, google “DIDO ELIZABETH BELLE
    A BLACK GIRL AT KENWOOD”. If I were to write this novel I will focus on what happened to her between April and December 1893. Possibly how her female relatives, including her cousin got together to ensure that she had further protection and prevent scandalous issues. Such as other relatives who did not really take a shine to her such as the next owner of Kenwood house and how her fathers wife dismissed her even though her husband asked her to look after her in his will. That is where John Davenier would come in. This could make a good Jane Austen type novel.

    PS Did anyone figure out that Dido must have been been at least two months pregnant when she got married. Hmm Scandalous times. She baptised her twins in may 1894 and married in december 1893.

    • Thanks very much for this, Fedibengal, I like the idea of John Davinier as a free black man of French origin – makes sense and would make him a fascinating hero. I think your Austen-esque story would make a cracking good read.

      I hadn’t figured out that Dido was already pregnant when she married Davinier. That’s the icing on the cake!

    • Oh my gosh! Thanks for those missing pieces, fedibengal! It makes her story more poignant. I also was wondering if Davinier was a black man or not. I didn’t even connect the bit about him being a post-revolutionary French man. Someone needs to write this! (I will keep an eye out for the movie, too.)

  7. Well the pregnancy thing needs to be researched further as different sites give different dates. Some say the twins were born 1894, some say 1895. But hey this is where the fiction element could come in.

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