I recently completed Paula Byrne’s Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice (2014), a companion piece to the 2013 film Belle that’s part biography of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lord Mansfield and part historical analysis of slavery in the British Empire. Dido Elizabeth Belle was the mixed race daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay, nephew of William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield who served as Lord Chief Justice during the late eighteenth century. Lindsay had a child with a female slave named Maria Belle, and although Dido Belle was born into slavery, she was raised by William Murray (Lord Mansfield) and his wife.
Both the film and the book focus on how Dido’s relationship with Murray might have very well influenced his stance on slavery, particularly in his ruling on the Somerset case of 1772. Charles Stewart brought his slave James Somerset to England in 1769. Somerset later escaped in 1771 but was captured and imprisoned on a ship bound for the West Indies. Although he was supposed to be sold to a plantation in Jamaica, Somerset and his godparents applied for a writ of Habeas Corpus to determine if his imprisonment was legal since, as Somerset’s council argued, English common law did not support slavery.
While Mansfield’s ruling, which freed Somerset, was seen as a sign that slavery had no place on English soil, Dana Rabin asserts in “Slavery, Villeinage and the Making of Whiteness” that, “Mansfield resolved only the question of Habeas Corpus writ. He declared illegal the coerced transportation of slaves from England and remained silent on the general question of slavery in England and throughout the empire” (6). Lord Mansfield’s stance on slavery remained ambiguous. As Paula Byrne notes, “Mansfield was ruminating anxiously on the consequences of his ruling if it went wholly in favour of Somerset, and as a result every slave in Britain was freed, he judged the loss to the proprietors as being more than 70,000 pounds” (142-3).
Dido’s presence in Lord Mansfield’s life ameliorates questions of his ambivalence in Byrne’s interpretation of their relationship, and his affection for her humanizes his struggles while also positioning Dido as an important historical figure in England and as part of African Diaspora. As L.A. Times journalist Mark Olsen writes, “Her presence serves as a catalyst for her great-uncle, the lord chief justice, to make a series of legal decisions that begin to erode the economic basis of the slave trade.”
While reading about Dido Belle, I found a few articles discussing not only the historical background of the story but also current controversies about who wrote the screenplay for the movie Belle and who, consequently, gets credit for bringing her story to a wider audience. In LA Times’ “Writing Dispute for Film ‘Belle’ Bubbles Up Again,” Mark Olsen summarizes the ongoing public struggle between director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sangay, which was settled in court but still goes on in the press. Both women claim to be inspired by the portrait shown below, and they both assert they breathed life and interiority into Dido’s image.
“Dido Elizabeth Belle” by Attributed to Johann Zoffany – https://poeticsofinteriority.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/d1c47-didoandeliza3.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Sagay saw this 1779 painting, which features Dido Elizabeth Belle (right) with her cousin Elizabeth Mary Murray, hanging in Scone Palace in Scotland. Asante claims she received a postcard of the painting, and she used that as her inspiration. The questions around Dido’s life story, the attempts to write her voice for a larger audience, and the controversies about Belle’s screenplay remind me of similar conversations about authorship in texts like The Woman of Colour (1808) and Ourika (1823), which may both be compared comparisons to Belle.
Ourika, written by Claire de Duras, is based on the life of a young Senegalese girl purchased by the Chevalier de Buffons in the late 1780s and given as a gift to the Duchess of Orleans. The Duchess raised Ourika until she died at the age of sixteen. Ourika was then adopted, in a more figurative sense, by Duras for her novella about the tragic life of a young black woman out of place in Parisian aristocracy during the French Revolution. It’s interesting to note that Ourika was the “first serious attempt by a white novelist to enter a black mind,” according to John Fowles, translator for the French novella (Fowles xxxii).
Making a contrast with Ourika, Lyndon Dominic, editor of The Woman of Colour, believes that this anonymously written epistolary novel “provides a missing link in the narrative history of black heroines from Imonida to Ourika” (18). Unlike Duras’ novella, “it seems plausible to propose that a woman of colour wrote The Woman of Colour” and that a book like this, possibly based on the real life experiences of Afro-British woman in the long nineteenth century, allows us to see this work as “source material that represents her interiority” (17).
Several questions arise from these topics. Who gets to take credit for creating a voice out of a perceived voicelessness of Dido Belle’s existence? How is the interiority of a character linked to how we perceive our own histories and our potential futures? Who gets to claim the voices of these previously unrepresented women who may re-conceptualize how we view black presences in the West? The movie Belle is still in some theaters and will be available online soon, and I hope viewing this film will in some way elucidate some of the answers to these questions.
Belle. Dir. Amma Asante. Perf. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2013. Film.
Byrne, Paula. Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014. Print.
Dominique, Lyndon Janson. The Woman of Colour: A Tale. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2008. Print.
Duras, Claire De Durfort, and John Fowles. Ourika: An English Translation. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1994. Print.
Olsen, Mark. “Writing Dispute for Film ‘Belle’ Bubbles up Again.” LA Times. N.p., 29 July 2014. Web. 29 July 2014.
Rabin, D. “‘In a Country of Liberty?’: Slavery, Villeinage and the Making of Whiteness in the Somerset Case (1772).” History Workshop Journal 72.1 (2011): 5-29. Web.