Thursday, 7 February 2013

Dido Elizabeth Belle


 There is a new film coming soon (Belle) inspired by the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the first black woman to be introduced to high society in Georgian times.

Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) was an illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an African woman known as Belle. Very little is known about Belle except that she was biracial. Her daughter Dido was sent to live in the household of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who was Lindsay's uncle and thus Dido's great-uncle.

Dido Elizabeth Belle was born around 1761. She was baptised in 1766 at St. George's Church, Bloomsbury. Her father, John Lindsay, was at the time a  Royal Navy captain on HMS Trent, a warship based in theWest Indies that took part in the capture of Havana from the Spanish in 1762.

It has been suggested that Dido's mother was an enslaved African on board one of the Spanish ships captured during this battle, but the dates are inconsistent and Dido's baptism record shows that she was born while Lindsay was in the West Indies and that her mother's name was Maria Belle.  As Dido was illegitmate, she did not use the name Lindsay and was therefore called Dido Elizabeth Belle.

 Lindsay sent Dido to his uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, who lived with his family at Kenwood House in Hampstead, which was then just outside London.  The Earl and his wife were childless and were already raising Dido's cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, after her mother's death.   Dido was about the same age as Elizabeth and it's possible that Mansfield took Dido in to be Elizabeth's playmate and, later, her personal attendant.

1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Elizabeth Murray*
* Painting by an unknown artist, formerly attributed to Zoffany.  From the collection of the Earl of Mansfield, Scone Palace, Perth.

Despite the Earl's revulsion for slavery, the social conventions of his household were discriminatory. Dido would not dine with the rest of the family, especially if they had guests, but joined the ladies for coffee afterwards in the drawing room. As she grew older, she took responsibility for the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood, and she also helped Mansfield with his correspondence - an indication that she was fairly well educated. The running of the dairy and poultry yard would have been a typical occupation for ladies of the gentry, but helping her uncle with his correspondence was less usual, since this was normally done by a secretary or a male clerk.

Dido also received an annual allowance of £30 10s, several times the wages of a domestic servant; by contrast, Elizabeth received around £100, but she was after all an heiress in her own right, and Dido, quite apart from her race, was illegitimate in a time and place when great social stigma usually accompanied such status.

A 1779 painting by an unknown painter (above) depicts Dido alongside Elizabeth, carrying exotic fruit and wearing a turban with a large feather and a large pearl earring.  The painting, which hangs at Scone Palace in Scotland, is owned by the present Earl Mansfield and in 2007 was exhibited in Kenwood during an exhibition to run alongside events marking the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807.

In his role as Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield was instrumental in bringing about the legal end of slavery with his ruling on the Sommersett case in 1772, where he held that slavery was unlawful in England (although this did not end slave trafficking altogether).  It's not difficult to suppose that his great niece Dido Elizabeth influenced his thinking.

Dido's father died without legitimate heirs in 1788, leaving £1000 to be split between his three illegitimate children, one of which was Dido.  When the Earl died in 1793, he left Dido £500 as an outright sum and a £100 annuity in his will, and officially confirmed her freedom.

Little is known about Dido's life after she left Kenwood, but on 5th December 1793, she married John Davinier (very likely a steward at Kenwood) at St. George's in Hanover Square.  The Daviniers had three sons, twins Charles and John (baptised 8th May 1795) and William Thomas (baptised 26th January 1802).

Dido died in 1804 and was buried in July that year at St George's Fields, a burial-ground close to what is now Bayswater Road; in the 1970s, however, the site was redeveloped and her grave was moved. She was survived by her husband, who later remarried and had two more children.

Dido's fascinating story will be coming to the screen in the film Belle, directed by Amma Assante and starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle, Matthew Goode as Captain Sir John Lindsay, Tom Wilkinson as the Earl of Mansfield and Sam Reid as John Davinier.

Production still - Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle
Production still - Sarah Gadon as Lady Elizabeth/Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido


 
The film is now in post-production and locations include Oxford, Osterley Park, Isle of Man and Pinewood Studios.

I can't wait to see it!


 

5 comments:

  1. Great article! I would love to see it too.

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  2. Thanks, the US release date looks set for May 2 2014 but no news on UK date yet ...

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  3. That painting is by a relatively popular artist at the time named Zoffany.

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. Oops, I'll try and post again...

    Hi Wacktress, and thanks for commenting :) There seems to be some confusion about that. It was formerly attributed to Zoffany but now the painting, which hangs at Scone Palace, Perth, is listed as being by an unknown artist. I've added a clarification under the image :)

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