‘Belle’ of course means beautiful.
In Japan when a young woman or girl smiles and points an index finger at her dimpled cheek she says in effect, “Look at me. Aren’t I beautiful?” Invariably she is and knows it, thinking you will think so too. So the gesture is perfunctory: she just wanted to call attention to her beauty.
I thought of this while looking at the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay. She appears in a painting unveiled in this beautiful drama about both the painting and its subject. Dido (pointing cheekily at her cheek) is pictured with Lady Elizabeth Murray, her cousin. Both are opulent young women in elegant Georgian finery. The year is 1779 and they wear pearls, silk and satin. Both are beautiful, though quite physically different, Dido a brown-skinned mulatto from the West Indies, Elizabeth a pale-skinned, powdered English rose. Although the studious Elizabeth — holding a book in her left hand — is central in the portrait, her right hand stretches out to clutch the left arm of Dido who is almost dancing out of the frame, her back arched, her left leg raised, her smile mischievous. Whereas Elizabeth is rather stiff and strait-laced, Dido is vivacious and lively, all movement, play and fun.
However, the amused half smile on Elizabeth’s face betrays her joy at the fun Dido induces. They love each other, it’s clear, and we see that it’s Elizabeth who’s reaching out for this fun, touching Dido as they pursue another of their spontaneous escapades.
Dido is exotic, a turbaned cloth wrapped round her raven black hair, a feather sticking up from it. Elizabeth is domestic, the English rose, her auburn hair garlanded with flowers. Both are fresh-faced young ladies who smile out at us from the canvas, inviting us into their pleasurable world, and we almost feel like sharing it with them for a time while watching the film.
But appearances, as ever, can be deceiving. There is wealth, finery and privilege on display here to be sure, but it comes at the expense of so much else.
The great evil at the heart of this film is the slave trade, supported and protected by the logic of empire. Britain knows this, hardly blind to what it is doing. But the squalid trade is perpetuated by the forces of denial, greed and inertia.
Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (1761-1804) was a product of empire, her father Sir John Lindsay an admiral in the Royal Navy, her mother Maria Belle an African slave. Dido was born in the West Indies (illegitimately, of course), her parents unable to marry. But love can transcend anything, it seems, including class, rank and colour. It did so in her case. Her father was a man of feeling. He loved and cherished her, would not abandon her. Instead, he brought her back to England with him when she was possibly only four or five years old (her mother apparently having died). His career in the Navy meant he had to be away at sea much of the time, so Dido was left with an important uncle of Sir John’s — William Murray, known as Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of the realm at the time (1756-88). Dido grew up at Kenwood House in Hampstead, the lavish estate of her uncle, and lived the rest of her life as an aristocrat in high society.
Lady Elizabeth Murray was born in 1760, so there’s some thought that Dido may have been taken into the household as a playmate of Elizabeth’s, a kind of personal attendant rather than a lady’s maid. One thing we know for certain is that the girls bonded as bosom sisters, not as distant cousins. Elizabeth was emotionally colourblind to Dido, and this must have helped others in the household to feel the same. It helped immensely too that Dido’s temperament was calm, her character good, and her mind sharp.
Yet within the household the social standards of etiquette of the day were adhered to. Dido was allowed to eat with the family privately. We often see her eating at the family breakfast table, but never at the dining room table for dinner when guests are included. At such moments she had no place at the table in her own home, appearances kept up for the world.
Psychologically the drama hinges on this tension. She is loved in the family for who she is, but what she is socially remains problematic. Lord Mansfield as highest judge in the land presides over some court cases that involve slavery. One of these concerns the Zong, a slave ship in which the slaves, shackled together in chains, were jettisoned overboard at sea. What caused this cruel mass murder? Greed, profit and disease. The slaves, sickened and diseased from weeks kept below deck and bound in horrific, inhumane conditions, were weakened. As the ship crossed the Atlantic toward the Americas the slavers realised their cargo was useless. Who would purchase such damaged merchandise? So the better option was to recoup their financial loss via false insurance claims.
There was tremendous political and mercantile pressure on Lord Mansfield to rule in favour of the plaintiffs, the slavers. If the case went against them, it could open up a whole new legal set of circumstances that might challenge the legitimacy of slavery. Therefore much of the drama is built round Lord Mansfield’s legal and public decision, as well as what Dido represents and does to sway his decision. Her ally in this is John Davinier, son of a vicar. He’s also portrayed in the film as an abolitionist, an idealistic fighter for human rights at a time when they were hardly recognised, although this may not have been historically true.
At any rate, both Dido and John are colourblind, love one another, eventually marry and have three children (though their marriage and family are not shown in the film).
The writing, direction, cinematography, costumes, music (by Rachel Portman) and acting are all wonderful. The young female leads are particularly exquisite, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido and Sarah Gadon as Lady Elizabeth Murray. They are fully believable as Georgian women in all their beautiful splendour.
Their portrait can be viewed online. Or, if you want to see the real thing and are able to gain access to it, it hangs in a room at Scone Palace in Scotland, the estate where William Murray grew up before he became Lord Mansfield, an exemplary figure in the history of British law whose character, conscience and position of influence helped Britain abolish slavery throughout the empire.