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?