“Belle” the Movie: Marrying for Love, Money or Social Status, the Lost HistoriesCulture Watch
Occasionally, a film comes along that reminds us of the history of marriage, dating and romance: As recently as the 19th century, powerful men in Britain married, not so much for love and romance as for social status, property, title and a woman’s inheritance.
“Belle” is a film set on a grand manor estate, Kenwood House in 18th-century England. The characters in the film, both men and women, are seeking either love, status, money, respect, wealth, security, stability, romantic sex, human compassion and/or racial understanding. Or, they defy social mores and are seeking personal growth and to live and love grandly. Suffice it to say some of them find their dreams and some do not.
“Belle” features a mixed-race, black-and-white 18th-century young woman who is the leading character. This trend, of retrieving lost stories from history, from black history, is catching on. The trend is significant and appealing because the stories are about survival. People survived the best they could in a difficult age.
“Belle” is a must see movie for anyone who loves period dramas and historical costume films. But this film is different. In some respects, it is a Jane Austen-style courtship in a story of status, manners and marriage, but in another sense, it is very different, because one of the characters is a mixed-race aristocratic young woman. She is Dido Elizabeth Bell, the daughter of a mother described as a slave and a father, a nobleman, an officer and gentleman. Played by the actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Dido’s story briefly mentions how the admiral met and loved on the high seas in the Caribbean when his ship attacked and conquered a Spanish ship. But records suggest that Dido Belle was born before the attacks on the Spanish ships, so there is another story here.
The British admiral is Sir John Lindsay, and when the film opens, he bends down to look at his daughter, and tells her she is beautiful because she looks like her mother. But as an Admiral in the British Royal Navy, he is leaving on another seafaring mission and leaves her in the safe-keeping of her granduncle, who is William James, Lord Mansfield, 1st Earl of Mansfield; AKA, the Lord Chief Justice of 18th-century England.
The movie focuses on Dido Belle’s development, social status, love and marriage, not on the larger world of the 18th-century. Admiral John Lindsay, we know, had other mixed-raced children, but we do not know what became of them. Well-conceived historical stories such as Belle touch on lineage and show audiences how we are united and related, even when we do not know it. Many royals, nobles and officers fathered black children. Historians say generations of Dido Belle’s descendants identified as white, and still do, and they live in Europe, Asia, Africa and America. DNA testing shows that a proportion of white Europeans have recent African ancestry from the slavery era. 18th-century-historians such as Edward Long listed the mixed-raced children who were taken from the Caribbean to England, who then blended into future generations. We can assume that the descendants of the captain’s other children identified as black and produced future black generations.
Records, art and artifacts these ancestors left, such as the 1779 painting of Lady Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin, a painting commissioned by Lord Mansfield of his two grandnieces, one white and one black, tell their story. But these fragments of history do not tell the full story. So being a genealogist, I was interested not only in the film, which tells the story of Dido Belle and how she lived, but also the story of her mother, Maria Belle, for both stories are about love, and race from earlier centuries. But we know little of their stories.
This story of Dido Belle is significant because Admiral Lindsay provided a home for his daughter and left money to support her. The imagined story develops with Dido Belle being challenged as a black woman in a large manor house, Kenwood House, in a society where women are judged, accepted and marry, based on their dowries and their English whiteness, and where men do the picking and selecting. Her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose father, an aristocrat, has remarried and left her penniless, is also raised by their granduncle and grandaunt, and is also challenged by the mores of the time to marry. Belle has to decide between a high-ranking officer and gentleman from a noble family who is interested in the large inheritance her father left her, and a low-ranking son of a vicar who declares his love for her. The film opened on May 2nd.
This is a story from an era, rooted in a genre of stories, where the men, as much as the women, struggled to marry for money, property and status. These are also stories where the drive to attain property, estates and inheritances showcase the history of marriage and relationships as well as the characters’ motivations and ancestry. The story is not only Jane Austen-like, but “Downton Abbey” revisited. However, because of slavery and the practice of erasing all people’s characters’ African ancestry, we see much more about the European lineage of the mixed-race character and very little about her mother’s ancestry except her mother’s name and social status: Enslaved.
Watching Belle as she navigates the social barriers, one sees how challenging love, romance and marriage were for women. Life in 18th-century England was challenging for young white women and near impossible for a young black woman, especially as her young white cousin reminds her, she is “illegitimate.” The law prevented blacks and whites from marrying, so mixed-race children were illegitimate. Dido Belle, the daughter of a nobleman was a lady, but she was illegitimate. As Dido Belle’s white cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose legitimate father too had abandoned her to be raised by his family asked in the film, “Why do the men always leave?” Ambitious, property-and-status-seeking fathers left their children to be raised by others. Officers and gentlemen especially abandoned the children they had with enslaved African women in Africa, on the high seas, in the Americas, at a very high rate.
The writer, Misan Sagay, and director, Amma Asante, created the film from a 1779 painting of a beautiful mixed-race aristocratic young woman and her cousin. Not much more is known about Lady Elizabeth Belle, except for her father, her residence, and how her views and her choices in a mate may have influenced how her granduncle, the Lord Chief Justice of England, the maker of laws, including the laws about slavery in his era. It was his legal duty to decide the laws governing England, including laws related to the slave trade. His ruling in the 1772 Somerset case, which declared that no enslaved person who escaped to England could be forcibly removed from English soil is not mentioned in the film but was historic and significant. His ruling in the 1781 “Zong” trial, where the slave ship owners demanded payment, when they sought to collect insurance on their African human cargo, 142 humans tossed overboard when the humans became sick, is pivotal in the film, and in Dido Belle’s choice of a mate. Dido Belle was living with Lord Mansfield at the time of the “Zong” hearing.
Lord Mansfield and his wife, Lady Mansfield, as the legal guardians of their grandnieces, have to find husbands for Lady Elizabeth and Lady Belle. Given the restrictive conventions, this is not an easy task in a society that does not value women who have small dowries or dark skin.
I was intrigued by this movie, and appreciate greatly how the filmmaker visualized the story, the first film to have a woman of color in a drawing room period drama. But I was also intrigued by the lost story of Belle’s mother. As someone who has delved into names, who has read the records of ancestors, I searched the names in this film. “Belle” is a story set on a grand estate in England, but offstage, against worldwide events, the backstory plays out in Africa, on the high seas of the Atlantic Ocean, and in the Caribbean Islands, specifically Jamaica.
Dido Belle’s father, Admiral John Lindsay, announced that he is leaving her to be raised by his granduncle and grandaunt, because her mother, a woman he loved, has died. That is the movie’s version of what happened to Dido Belle’s mother. Later in the movie, their daughter, Dido says the only thing she knows of her mother is the color she gave her. She says, “I know nothing of her but the color she gave me!” And even later in the film, a suitor who is wooing her wondered what her fate would have been if she had not been rescued and brought to England. As we leave the theater, we wonder the same too.
The clue to Lady Dido Elizabeth Belle’s ancestry is in the name her mother named her child. Maria Belle named her daughter, Dido, a female name from Benin in West Africa.
Dido Belle was a lady, Lady Dido Belle Lindsay, an aristocratic daughter of a British officer, Admiral John Lindsay. But born to a mother who was a slave she was a slave. That was the law. In his will, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, wrote special words, a wording he crafted in his will because he knew the laws past, present and future. He knew that even as a free lady of color, a daughter of the nobleman, Sir John Lindsay, Dido Belle could be snatched and re-enslaved, so he wrote in his will, “I confirm to Dido Elizabeth Belle her Freedom.” He knew the law. He used these words to protect her future. At any moment, even though she was a lady, someone could have come along and declared her still a slave, because she was born to a mother who was a slave. That was the law. Even Dido Belle needed manumission. This scene is not in the movie, but the filmmaker visualized a timepiece of a story of Dido Belle’s life. Catch the film.
The Lord Chief Justice knew how important it was to leave a record for history. That is why he commissioned the painting, which now hangs in the Scone Palace at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and which inspired the writer and director to make this film.
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