Belle and the Way It Was

Look at her in the 1779 Zoffany portrait – exotically turbaned and emerging cheekily from behind her cousin. The placement of the latter’s hand on hers indicates that the two, at least in Elizabeth Lindsay’s eyes, are equal. Quite astonishing when you think about it. She was no maidservant. If that was the case the white young lady’s hand wouldn’t have been within a bull’s roar of hers. In the past, had she appeared in a work of art of this nature, that is what she would have had to have been, or worse – a slave. For in Britain at this time slavery was at its zenith and fortunes were to made off the backs of the chained black man – and woman.


Slowly, though, society was becoming more liberal as the Age of Enlightenment took hold. Despite an upbringing surrounded by luxury, she was still up against it. She was illegitimate, a coffee coloured ‘mulatto’ and she was a woman – misogyny was rampant, stifling most attempts for the fairer sex to be their own person. Being, more or less, a chattel of a man was the go – an aspect the Amma Asante directed movie, ‘Belle’, well captures. But Dido’s real story is remarkable – and it has come to movie houses to such critical comments as ‘Elegant’ (Variety) and ‘Extraordinary’ (UK Guardian). Largely the praise is not overblown, just as long as you do not believe all the facts about her portrayed up there on the silver screen. Her tale actually needed no embellishment – but those associated with the movie have done plenty, playing very loosely with the ‘based on a true story’ facts.

Dido Elizabeth Belle certainly existed in the records, as well as in that astounding portrait. She was born the daughter of an admiral – one Sir John Lindsay to be exact. Her mother, quelle horreur, was a West Indian slave. The exact details of her conception are not known, only guessed at. Her upbringing was entrusted to a relative – but a very eminent one. He was no less than William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield and the Chief Justice of England. He treated her well and largely protected her from the trolls of the era – and there were plenty of those. Murray (skilfully played by Tom Wilkinson) was largely a man of his age, but had a stiff enough backbone to know what was right, even if it wasn’t socially acceptable. So, surrounded by wealth and all she could reasonably wish for as a child (then woman), Dido was still banished from the family table when guests were present. After her protector’s demise she was well-endowed financially and married a Frenchman – not the son (Sam Reid) of the local preacher, as presented in the movie.

It is historical fact that Murray’s high court decision over a case concerning a runaway slave – The Somersett Verdict – was the first step in the emancipation of the Negro from bondage in Britain. This journey’s culmination is also on the big screen in the fine ‘Amazing Grace’. Whether Dido played a role in his decision is unclear, although she certainly was employed by him as a clerk – also very forward for the time. In the movie she certainly has a defining role – although the nature of the case is entirely different – for dramatic effect I assume. On screen it involves the shocking mass drowning of slaves for insurance purposes.


In the lead role Gugu Mbatha-Raw’ is, well, ‘elegant’ when she has to be, but hardly ‘extraordinary’. Emily Watson as Mrs Murray can act in such roles, as given here, in her sleep. It is the troubled, protective Murray as poignantly portrayed by one of the Brit’s finest that is the stand-out. It is a story with a happy ending and is well worth a bo-peep. The flick did put me in mind of my island’s own troubled past. A similar situation to Dido’s tale occurred in our early years – the ending of which was sadly not happy at all. The story concerns the ‘adoption’ of Mathinna, a young Tasmanian Aboriginal girl, by John Franklin, an early governor, together with his redoubtable wife, Jane. I guess the major difference here was the lack of ‘blood’, and it showed. This story has been bought to life in Richard Flanagan’s awesome novel ‘Wanting’.

We have largely left the misogyny of the past behind us, although in less civilised places Pakistan, the Sudan and India, horrible stories of it have emerged just in the past week alone. No, here though, there is no place for the ill treatment of women in our Western society. We have risen above all that, haven’t we? Well, maybe not as Wendy Squires elucidates:-

Trailer for the Movie =

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s