Wednesday, June 11, 2014


This afternoon, I saw Belle, a British film inspired apparently by the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, that had been commissioned by their uncle William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield, at that time Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. The historic Dido Belle was the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of Lord Mansfield’s nephew, an officer in the Royal Navy officer, who was brought to England by her father and there left in Lord and Lady Mansfield’s care at their country estate of Kenwood House. The film depicts her upbringing as an aristocratic member of the family, virtually a sister to her legitimately-born cousin, and her eventual relationship with an aspiring law student, John Davinier, the son of a mere vicar, with strong views on the infamous “Zong” case, which was before Lord Mansfield (played by Tom Wilkinson) at the time. The film poignantly portrays the cruel economics of aristocratic marriage.  Belle’s legitimately born cousin has no inheritance and must somehow find herself a suitable match, while Belle has a handsome inheritance which actually secures her an offer of marriage from a the younger brother of the man who did not pursue a proposal with Belle’s cousin once he learned she had no money. (Since Belle’s prospects are, of course, complicated by her illegitimacy and being of mixed-race, hanging over her is always the danger of ending up a spinster, like her aunt, Lady Mary, played by Penelope Wilton.) Belle forms a friendship with Davinier and assists him in his polemics on the Zong case. Lord Mansfield’s ruling at the end of the film reflects the impact of his relationship with Belle in his interpretation of the law. His famous ruling has historically been seen as an important step toward Britain’s abolition of slavery.

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