Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

The cover of one of the many renditions of the Inkle and Yarico stories


As a brief follow-up to my blog about the poetry, letters and life of Frances Thynne Seymour, Countess of Hertford, I have placed on academia.edu, my review of a book published in ECCB: An Eighteenth-Century Current Bibliography (Bucknell Press imprint), and link it in here:  Dominique Lyndon’s Imoinda’s Shade:  Marriage and the African Woman in Eighteenth-Century British Literature, 1759-1808.

The book (I admit here) seriously angered me, and if I hadn’t promised a friend I would do this, I’d probably never have finished the book. I did a lot of reading around the book too. Then I patiently summarized the contexts of a history of very compromising supposedly abolitionist (the nice word is ameliorist) texts).

If anyone is interested, mine is a very readable review about a book justifying or explaining favorably a history of texts that are dismaying — but teach a lesson about white supremacy, a white outlook — very like Lady Hertford’s Ovidian Heriode in the person of Yarico to Inkle — Inkle has sold Yarico and his unborn child into enslavement and she writes of her continuing love for him. The irony is the man writing this book is African-American, and teaches at Princeton: the charitable interpretation, and partly probable reason for his having written this book is he’s trying his best to find something redemptive or inspiring (!) for modern day African-American scholars.  I don’t see how it seriously could be.


You have to think about what you are reading, but the analogies with many 20th and 21st century popular texts about African-America and European conflicts are there, including I now realize the very popular Broadway musical Hamilton (about which a blog will be forthcoming).

On Frank Felsenstein’s English Trader, Indian Maid: Representing Gender, Race and Slavery in the New World, see the comments to the previous blog.

This discreet drawing accompanied the first publication of the Yarico and Inkle story in middle class literature: there are far more salacious ones I don’t care to reprint


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Detail from Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Lady Elizabeth Murray attributed to Johann Zoffany: Belle

Dear friends and readers,

Carolyn Steedman whose important book, Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England, I reviewed here, recently told me that the film-makers of Belle overlooked a document that at the very least would have changed the cast of characters in the movie (and its story) considerably: Elizabeth Lindsay (Dido Belle’s legal and perhaps her familiar name too) had a full brother, John (named in the document) and Elizabeth’s father, John Lindsay (played by Matthew Goode in the movie) a sufficiently long-term and continuing relationship with Elizabeth’s mother to father two children by her and in his will ask his legal wife, Mary, to make sure the money that had been provided for them in trust became theirs. These three people, the son, John, the unnamed slave woman (concubine, slave-mistress?) whom John Lindsay lived with, and John Lindsay’s legal wife, are erased from the movie and just about every story told about this family group.

This has been public knowledge for at least 12 years: in footnote 93 of “Lord Mansfield’s Women” (from which Steedman’s shorter chapter of the same name in Labours Lost was adapted), Past and Present, 176 (August 2002):105-143, Prof. Steedman writes:

`Scone Palace, Murray Family Papers.  Earls of Mansfield. NRA(S) 0776.  Second Series, Bundle 2346.  Incl. attested copies (1793) of will and codicils of William, Earl of Mansfield.  Second Series, Bundle 54.  Accounts and Vouchers 1774-78 [this is in error for 1798]. `Important Notes respecting the state of Lord Mansfield’s affairs …’; `Notes respecting the state of Lord Mansfield’s affairs made by me in a Conversation I had this day with Mr Way and signed in Mr Way’s presence. December 19 1786′.  Dido was very well set up.  Her father had left money in trust for her and for another illegitimate child about whom nothing is known.  PRO,  PROB 11/1167. `I further give and bequeath unto my  dearest Wife Mary Lindsay One Thousand pounds in Trust to be disposed by her for the benefit of John and Elizabeth Lindsay my reputed Son and Daughter in such Manner as she thinks proper’.  Will dated 29 September 1783.'[Note 1 — a correction from the ODNB]

Prof Steedman puts it in conversational English to me in an email in this way:

So there was another child, almost certainly Elizabeth’s (Dido’s) brother. And by the same mother, again, almost certainly. So the usual `fathered on a slave women during the Siege of Cuba’ may well mask a much longer relationship. And Mary Lindsay, wife of Sir John Lindsay, was charged with the care of both children. What happened to the the boy? He was alive in 1783. An important factor of Elizabeth Lindsay’s emotional landscape may well have been the loss of her sibling. Or perhaps she saw him every day, and no one spoke of him. Sir John and Lady Mary Lindsay are the people to pursue if we want to know more about all of this.

So documents show Elizabeth’s brother was still alive in 1783. What happened to him? why was he not equally favored? were there no rumors because he was a boy and thus could not have been anyone’s slave-mistress?

We may infer that one reason this familiar family pattern in slave-owning families has escaped the Mansfield official histories is it is uncomfortable to people to have again to recognize that a white man is bigamously living with two women, one of which is his overt property (Elizabeth Lindsay’s mother) and the other his de facto property, Mary. (Valerie Martin’s Property about a slave-owning family down south, which won the Orange Prize in 2003, puns on this). And to have again to remember how siblings and half-siblings could find themselves alienated or used by one another when one was treated as a full family member and the other as a semi-servant or slave. (Another fiction by an American women writer, Louisa May Alcott’s The Brothers, treats of this frequently poisonous reality.)

I was very glad when Prof. Steedman contacted me because she gave me a chance to return to her Labours Lost to do justice to a chapter I know I wrote too little about: “Lord Mansfield’s Women.” In my review of Belle, I placed Elizabeth and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle Dido, and Sarah Gadon as Elizabeth Murray), in the context of their automatic dependence on Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and the other central women we see in the movie: Lord Mansfield’s wife, Lady Betty (who in life died in 1784 and is played by Emily Watson, one of my favorite actresses); the girls’ governess, Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton, another); plus an unnamed black woman servant who seemed to be treated as a household servant rather than a slave (that is someone with the status of a person, and the rights accruing to her by law and custom but whose player I cannot recognize from the cast listing). Not a very wide purview with all characters’ circumstances allegorized in accordance with the movie’s idealizations.


The above grouping includes Lady Ashford (who schemes to get Dido’s legacy for her second son and is played by Miranda Richardsxon) and omits the one black woman servant I’ve mentioned whom we see serving the girl cousins in the movie. (We also see white women servants.) Lord Mansfield’s women in the article and book include the daughters of Mansfield’s brother, sixth Viscount Stormont, Anne and Marjory Murray,” plus of course (in the movie) his great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, daughter to his nephew and importantly actual heir, David, seventh viscount. These three were all cousins to Dido Elizabeth Belle, “the black girl at Kenwood” (as she was called by rumor), an illegitimate daughter of Mansfield’s nephew on his sister’s side, Sir John Lindsay (once again, in the movie played by Matthew Goode).

Wmn Hogarth’s depiction of six of his servants

The context Steedman’s work places all our heroines in is somberer and includes a wider purview: women servants and women slaves. Her essay (and chapter) focuses specifically on women domestic workers, women servants who worked for others in their houses and on their lands in the eighteenth century, and is about the effort made by officials of various sorts, including or especially Lord Mansfield, to give each of such women the least benefit possible from the law of settlement as working women. This law had become a centerpiece in 18th century decisions concerning impoverished (which many many were) working women, the pre-19th century version of laws concerning the working poor: Steedman writes:

Under the whole complex of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century legislation that set the Old Poor Law in place, there emerged a dominant mode of operation: that a poor or indigent person claiming relief from a local authority was required in various ways to demonstrate his or her ‘settlement’, that is, that he or she ‘belonged’ to that place, and was among its settled poor. Settlement could be acquired in a variety of ways, most commonly by being born to a father who possessed it, and by never moving from a natal parish; though it still had to be confirmed by magistrates, through the examination of an applicant for poor relief, for it to be legally activated. ‘Earning’ it by service was the next most common route, and it certainly produced the most litigation. A man or a woman hired to work in a particular place, and fulfilling the contract for a year’s agreement to serve, had an important claim to settlement, and thus to relief. ‘Serving’ meant many kinds of work done for a master or mistress under a hiring agreement; but in the eighteenth century the most common kind of service agreement was to work as a domestic. Settlement through domestic service was something that a woman could ‘earn’ out of her own labour, and, in certain circumstances, pass on to her children (p. 106)

What I (reading the article) and others (quoted in the article) have found remarkable is how much time and money was spent on arguing the grounds for a settlement in the narrowest way and depriving a woman of her entitlement as a indigent person to a place in the community in which she was working and a sum to live upon. They sought to curb the working person from earning a sort of property right (to stay somewhere, to have access to money) by her labor. The cost of the litigation was far more than the tiny sums that would have been paid out to each. It was more important to make sure that no person was assigned the right to any portion of property (gotten ultimately from forms of taxes) that the establishment could avoid. The supposed purpose of the law was to relieve poverty and maintain the indigent within a community, not as some more recent historians have had it regulating “the labour market, labour relationships and labour migration,” though it is true that as one reads through the stories of the six women servants, Tabitha Reynolds, Elizabeth Lamb, Hannah Wright, Phoebe Beatson, Ursula Owens, and Hannah Phillips, and one woman slave almost treated as a servant, Charlotte Howe, it seems the aim of each parish was to see the woman was carted to another parish.

Lord Mansfield agreed: “He frequently lambasted ‘the litigious zeal of public bodies’, eager to see every disputed settlement case ‘travel through every stage which the law allow[ed]’.”

Mansfield routinely condemned ‘the litigation of the poor laws, which are … a disgrace to the country’. According to Cecil Fifoot, he thought them ‘a dropsey … swollen to monstrous proportions’ by ‘the invitation offered to each parish to cast its burden upon its neighbours’. ‘There ought to be no litigations at all in the settlement of the poor’, wrote an equally exasperated Thomas Ruggles in 1793 (p. 109).

Of interest and relevant today still are the reasons or norms used to treat some of the women more harshly than the others. Each of their stories teaches us lessons about who gets to make a judgement call on the value and indeed existence of the labour of someone in law. A woman earned the right of settlement either by working in a parish for a full 365 days (a year) or by having been born or married to a man who was himself recognized as having the right of settlement (though his work, where he was born, his family) in a parish. It will be immediately seen that one way to deprive a woman was to fire her before she finished her year out. (This reminds me of how my grandmother was deprived of her pension from Bordens Milk company when she grew old: she was a cleaning woman and a couple of years before her retirement, her immediate boss began to give her much harder work than he had done, so hard that she had to retire before she could earn her full right to pension. This was deliberate.) To be hired and stay employed by someone for a full year was for many women “virtually the only method to gain one’s own settlement.”

Each case as argued in these courts is so complicated I can’t go over them here, but can only offer a few details from what went on in these seven stories (pp. 113-40):

Tabitha Reynolds and her three youngest children (Sarah, five years old; John, aged three, and Mary, one year old) were removed to Leeds from Doncaster on the order of two West Riding justices, at the very end of December 1767, and the struggle was over whether she would be taken in at Leeds. She had had two husbands, one of whom disappeared on her and was declared dead, and on whose behalf she was perhaps entitled to a right of settlement (she would be regarded as under coverture), the second referred to as “the Pauper,” and three children, but she had also been hired (signed a contract) and worked for a full year in her own right in Methley. She is quoted: “she was hired for a year … & served such year Service & consequently was then legally settled there.” She did finally end up at Methley. That her children were perhaps “bastards” was held against her, for at the same time it was recognized that as their mother they were inseparable from her as they were under seven years of age.

The problem Elizabeth Lamb faced was if she was a servant in husbandry (which would have provided more protection as indoors work): she was to work in a dairy but not to milk the cows and was declared unfit for service: here we see the magistrates’ jurisdiction and of course they were inclined to favor the master.

Hannah Wright had nearly earned her right to settlement when three weeks before her year was up her master discovered she was pregnant (outside marriage) and turned her off. Here the question was not what kind of work, but the “right [of an employer] to dismiss his servant if he had ‘just and reasonable cause’; there could be no doubt ‘but that a criminal conduct like [hers] amounts to a reasonable cause’.” She had received her full wages for work done, but was deprived of the right to refuse to consent to a dissolution of the contract. Hannah Wright is recorded as saying:

was willing to have staid her year out, if she might; but … it was not material to her whether she staid or went, as she had received her whole year’s wages; and that she was not half gone with her child when she left her service; and hoped that she could have done the work of her place to the end of the year.

Here Lord Mansfield agreed her “criminal conduct” was the test, ignoring as everyone else did the question of her consent to be dismissed. Mansfield often comes out harsh here.

Ursula Owens’s employer tried to dismiss her just before the end of her year and was not able to; Mansfield did not decide for her, but “Judges Dunning and Sylvester spoke of her loss of settlement, ‘her only one, which she deserves so well’, saying that ‘Justice as well as reason of the thing are here with the Settlement’. ‘Service wanted 7 days of a Year but whole years wages pd gains a Settlement’, run the notes on the back of the papers in the case.”

Hannah Phillips gained her settlement (in her natal village, so partly based on her father’s earned right) even though she accepted food and clothes in lieu of cash on the grounds (in her words) that “it was better for her to have clothes, as she was connected with bad friends, who would take her money.” When she was dismissed 2 and 1/2 years later, the lengthily-argued case turned on “whether she had been ever hired for a year.” The judges decided for her.

From Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party: Sojourner Truth’s Plate setting

Charlotte Howe was the most powerless and is never quoted. She was purchased in America “as a negro slave,” transported across the Atlantic (how this happened has a couple of versions) and treated as the servant of the Captain (Howe) who brought her into the household. When he died, it was argued at a

“quarter sessions and again at King’s Bench that, as she had ‘lived as a servant from year to year, and therefore is to be considered a servant as far as the laws of England will permit… it would be hard if a person of this description should not be maintained and taken notice of by the law’. She had acted as a servant, said the attorneys; she had displayed a clear understanding of the nature of her obligation, ‘as she never thought of quitting the service of the family till her master’s death: [and] that to deprive her of her settlement, the court must hold that she might have gone away at any time … But Mansfield cut briskly through the narration of her circumstances, with the observation that ‘it cannot be contended that this was a voluntary hiring, and [it is] therefore not a service … .”

There can be no hiring of herself out as Charlotte was a slave: she did not own herself. Mrs Howe’s will had left one servant some luxury goods and 30 pounds upon condition of the servant living with Mrs. Howe when she died and staying in the house for 3 months afterward; 20 pounds for the poor of the parish, nothing for Charlotte. At the time of this will, the Times retold Charlotte Howe’s story sympathetically and asked (somewhat rhetorically) “‘whether a negro slave can obtain settlement in a parish?” But to have rights, benefits, entitlements, you have to be recognized as belonging to a legal category which can have them. Charlotte Howe did not.


At the end of her cases, Steedman reminds the reader (who may not know this) that fourteen years after Mansfield made his famous judgement in the James Somerset case, he said “all he had done fourteen years before, he said, in the case of James Somerset the slave, was to ‘go no further than to establish, that the master had no power to take the slave by force out of the Kingdom’ (p. 138). She then goes on to say that two weeks after Mansfield delivered his judgement about Charlotte Howe “Mansfield drew up (yet another) codicil to his will: ‘Besides the annuity I give Dido the sum of Two hundred pounds to set out with’. The timing is probably quite coincidental: he was always upping the Kenwood girls’ inheritance.” Still she would like to find “in some recess of Mansfield’s consciousness, between two young black women, from vastly different social circumstances, in that frisson of anxiety, that uncertainty of future, in the words ‘to set out’.” And it is in this place in her article that footnote 93 occurs (p. 139).

I agree with Steedman that the recent tendency to blur different kinds of labors and workers so that “unfree labor” begins to look like “free labor” and vice versa is to ignore as unimportant that “that serfdom, debt bondage, service, penal servitude, indentured service, and slavery were — and actually are — rather different conditions.” For a start, a slave woman is answerable with her body and has no way of refusing to have whatever kind of sex her master might want; she can be sold off at will. An indentured servant is much worse off than someone who can just quit (or be fired). (A contemporary trafficked woman is a new dire category for women to endure.) In the cases at hand, the person’s gender, kind of work, original status (birth), and the state of her body at the time of her work counted enormously. Whether she had young children. Prof. Steedman sums up in her article what we learn from all Lord Mansfield women in accordance with the theme of her later book: there is an

enormous and ubiquitous section of the eighteenth-century workforce, which is still almost entirely neglected by historians of eighteenth-century labour and society. They were women workers, who on the fragmentary and faint evidence of their narratives, believed that domestic work was work; that their energies (which earned them sometimes money, sometimes clothes and keep, sometimes a settlement) was exercised in some- thing called work, which arose out of the job in hand. Hannah Wright, four months or so pregnant, was sure she could ‘have done the work of her place to the end of the year’ (the year of the contract of hiring). We may dimly discern a belief in their entitlement (especially on the part of Charlotte Howe) to the major benefit that domestic service brought, inaugurated by act of parliament in 1662.100 Tabitha Reynolds and Hannah Wright may also have known what differences illegitimacy made to the legal ability of their children to inherit their mother’s settlement. And they must have known what their historians have only recently understood, that the Law of Settlement was ‘in fact, the most important branch of law, if judged by the number of lives affected and lawyers’ hours expended’ (and the reason why a manual like Burn’s Justice of the Peace ‘had to go through so many editions’, in the attempt to keep up with the high court judges’ almost daily adjustment of it) (p. 142).

Elizabeth Murray blurred into Elizabeth Lindsay, with the white maid fixing the latter’s hair

I find myself thinking about how in the film and many a novel the crucial differences in status between the groups of women Mansfield and his male relatives married, fathered, brothered, sonned, nephewed, and the groups of women such men hired or used as slaves is repeatedly similarly blurred too. As if status and class don’t matter.

The information in Prof Steedman’s book and article bring home to us that the painting attributed to Zoffany does not show us someone who can stand for any kind of general condition of women free or slaves or servants. Elizabeth Lindsay was unusually lucky in having been able to escape the usual conditions of her combined status and gender. The favor of one rich and powerful man, Lord Mansfield, a distant uncle, did this for her. Still I wonder why she smiles in the way she does: she had to have come into contact with many more people than him. We may hope for her that the husband Lord Mansfield chose for her was after Lord Mansfield died as good to her.


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Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825), attributed to John Zoffany

Wm Turner’s Slave Ship (1781) said to be a depiction of the Zong massacre

Dear friends and readers,

Imagine, gentle reader, if someone made a movie about WW2 where we were invited to enjoy the story of a Nazi family, who while their lives and laws were shaped by an abhorrent set of values they did nothing practical to repudiate, were as individuals good well-meaning people, with individual trials and tragedies of their own; the story of the movie tells how they, especially under the leadership of the father, saved this or that Jew and worked to say limit the number of extermination camps or their reach. During the movie we would be told of the slave labor camps, the extermination and gassing of people, but never see any of it — or only a grateful escaped Jew or two. The households, costumes would be lavish, intense interest would be garnered through in the subtle psychologies of this family as it might interact with more liberal or far worse families.

Surely there’d be an outcry. Surely no one would dare (outside Occupied Palestine where they’d shoot off guns if they had any).

One thought I had as we left the movie-house was how at the center of this genteel, beautifully clothed story more or less prompted by the famous picture once thought to be by Zoffany (very little other record is left of Elizabeth Lindsay called Dido, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and an over-inflated reputation as central to the history of the abolition of slavery of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) was another un-dramatized story of horrific ruthless heartless cruelty. I reviewed a book a while back which discussed (almost as if it were justified) typical horrific incidents where the perpetrators essentially go unpunished in order to support an establishment elite.

Most of the time the jarring discords between what we see in costume drama — the elite groups living luxuriously or at least in considerable comfort — and the world outside its country house walls are not so striking if you allow yourself to be lulled into the image of security at the heart of costume drama, are not too wide awake — or not thinking and imagining on your own just a bit. Readers of Sense and Sensibility often appear to forget that its happy ending is dependent on Mr Brandon have coerced his ward, Eliza Brandon into marrying his eldest son who was cruel, amoral, indifferent to her; when she ran away, she lost everything including her life and the money she brought into the family shored up the estate, Delaford Abbey, which provides the happy safe place the Dashwoods take refuge in at the close of the novel. After all it’s but one woman, and the novel encourages us not to remember her so much as her daughter by an unknown man whose own weak conduct (so the novel encourages us to see her) leads to her seduction, pregnancy and abandonment by the novel’s alluring flawed hero, Willoughby.

In the allure and glamor of the literature and art found in the country house, we forget the cost to everyone but the central owning families:

Kenwood House where the painting originally hung

This movie — to give it the credit it deserves, makes the massacre (a word not used in it) central. I don’t know how historically accurate its time scheme is — I suspect as with Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons, the film-makers have an important historical set of incidents and made it occur at a somewhat different time than it did in order to make them intersect with a love story. The case is not the more famous one connected to Lord Mansfield about James Somersett but a step-by-step tracing of the agonized step-forward of Lord Mansfield as he has to decide a case where slave-traders threw overboard in chains some supposedly diseased 150 African people in order to collect the insurance (on them as damaged cargo). The slave-traders saw a bigger easier profit than trying to sell individuals. Mansfield does it on narrow grounds: while he says he deplores slavery, he finds for the insurance company (who true to the breed don’t want to pay) that the slavers committed fraud because they did pass by water stations and so their “cargo” need not have become diseased. In the movie he is moved to do this because his adopted mulatto daughter, Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) found the maps in his papers hidden away and forced him to confront them by giving them to a young idealistic vicar’s son, John Davinier (Sam Reid), who seems to be part of an ad-hoc unofficial group seeking to end slavery and whom his adopted daughter-niece Belle loves as he loves her.

The case was important because it discouraged copycat cases of horrible mass murder. At the same time we should note that the slavers got away with it: they went unpunished and the slaves as individuals were forgotten, remained nameless, as they are in this movie.

My daughter, Izzy and I went on Sunday and we were much more impressed than we thought we would be. I would not call it a movie which reflects Jane Austen’s novels, but a movie which is like the movies in the Jane Austen canon. As such, as what’s called quality film, I enjoyed it and thought it well-done. It seems to be meant as a semi-serious movie about a small step forward in the abolition of chattel slavery in the mid-18th century, has a black woman director, Amma Asante, and screenplay writer, Misay Sagan (who also scripted the movie from Our Eyes were Watching God). There were many African-American people in the audience, an unusual occurrence for this kind of movie.

Many people applauded when it ended, with congratulations to Mansfield all round, complete with his allowing his adopted daughter-niece (who has a dowry) to be courted by Davinier who hitherto has been treated as a person of inferior class and prospects, with a marriage in the offing by saying he will allow Davinier to come into his law office and become a lawyer.


In history Elizabeth Lindsay did marry one Davinier, had two sons by him, and the probabilities of the time would make it plausible that a young man in the fringe gentry, given a chance to rise in the world would be happy to accept even a “colored” or mulatto woman for his wife, especially when she brought him such a well-connected de facto father-in-law.

I was impressed by a relative lack of idealization in the characterization of the principals — relative, for Belle’s father (Matthew Goode) is all kind gentleness to this child as Belle’s biological father (he’s just played Wickham in Juliette Towhidi’s Death Comes to Pemberley) had by an unnamed slave. Despite overt supposed sternness, Lord Mansfield is all generosity towards his women.

Earnest morning discussion

Lord Mansfield’s women comprise many more than the four concentrated on here — rather movingly and with thematic appropriateness. I single out Penelope Wilton (yes yet again she is given a stirring role) as the tolerated Lady Mary Murray, the governess spinster who gave up a marriage with a young man she loved and who loved her because they lacked the money and equal status.

Wilton conveys poignancy and vulnerability, fragility as she sews away with her charges

If Belle does not find a husband, she will be trained to replace Lady Mary (she is told it’s not a bad fate and it wasn’t in context). Emily Watson is Lady Mansfield (she’s been a favorite with me since she played Elsie in Gosford Park), with Sarah Gadon given the thankless role of a kindly Lady Elizabeth who is far dumber than her sister-cousin Belle and in danger of marrying for money (gasp). In the film Mansfield is a gentle revolutionary kind of guy to all of them: Lady Mansfield remembers him this way when young. But Carolyn Steedman tells another tale in her chapter, “Lord Mansfield’s Women,” the story of several real women servants and how harshly and with indifference he treated these impoverished, sometimes pregnant women when they came before him as magistrate (see Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England).

The film-makers really did attempt to show how a black girl brought up partly as an equal in a gentry rich family, but clearly also as an inferior might experience life. The incidents the script does justice are those which show how keen is the average person’s response to even fleeting forms of disrespect — and these for Belle are not so fleeting; they are in fact continual: she cannot eat with her family when other families come to dinner with them; it’s understood that she will not be sought in marriage by a certain level of male at all, and her legacy of 2000 pounds is of enormous importance in getting second and third and fourth sons, one of whom who asks her to marry him, Oliver Ashford (James Norton, also coming away from Death Comes to Pemberley where he played equally well a fine man, Alveston, in love with Georgiana Darcy) doesn’t bother to hide their real sense of her inferiority (as Darcy in the famous first proposal in P&P didn’t bother hide his sense from Elizabeth). Oliver’s blindness to his own snobbery and condescension to Belle when he asks her to marry him, provides some of few funny moments of the film. Norton is pitch perfect (reminding me of Johnny Lee Miller) as a hero in these costume dramas.


We see Ashford’s elder brother, James (Tom Felton) sexually abuse her by wrenching her arm, threatening her sexually and are to surmise that were she to marry James she’d be in danger of rape without recourse. One of the most moving, maybe the best moment in the film shows Belle pulling hard at her skin as she looks at a mirror: she is desperately trying to remove its color.

Costume dramas get away with discussing issues, revealing suppurating sorenesses that movies in contemporary dress don’t dare. It is exquisitely well-acted, filmed, with the older slow graceful use of juxtaposition, not much montage. It may be that the real simple reason the movie has gotten a lot of attention and is attracting audiences is that it has dared to have a black young woman as one of the “Austen heroines:”



The film has garnered some good interesting reviews and essays.

There’s an excellent article on the historical matter aligning it to Austen’s Mansfield Park, clearly prompted by the movie: article “Ambiguous Cousinship: Mansfield Park and the Mansfield Family,” by Christine Kenyon Jones, published in Persuasions (31.1 2010): she brings out the realities of Mansfield’s decisions. The analogy of how women are treated as property in the film (Lady Mansfield of all people points out how women are in effect property) and the slaves is one that you can tease out of Austen in Mansfield Park: the position of governess is made directly analogous to that of a chattel slave in her Emma — only it’s not really as the governess cannot be thrown out a window in the hopes of payment, not beaten, raped, impregnated.

Paula Byrne (not the result of seeing the film as her book came out first) has a chapter in The Real Jane Austen on Lord Mansfield’s house, Kenwood, the women in it, including Dido or Belle and the probability (as she argues it) that a mulatto heroine in Austen’s fragment was prompted by seeing this young girl. I know Austen visited the Finch-Hattons (whom Elizabeth Murray married into) because she comments on how dull Elizabeth is; she visited the housekeeper at Highcleere Castle (aka Downton Abbey), liked to go touring to houses and ruins so that we have explicit evidence for Byrne’s fantasy is not a hindrance. Byrne describes the Mansfield household in detail.

Vanessa Thorpe’s review in the Guardian shows she has done her homework: she describes a biography of Mansfield by Poser, who revealed that this complex figure was not the crusading liberal portrayed in the film. “He was a brilliant mind, but was chiefly interested in protecting the status quo,” said author Norman Poser.

In Lord Mansfield, Justice in the Age of Reason, Poser, a New York academic, argues that the eminent politician and judge does not merit his reputation as a radical hero of the anti-slavery movement. Although he was fond of Dido Belle and always fair to her, there is no evidence that she influenced his views. In fact, the judge’s famous ruling in the case that later helped to dismantle slavery was the result of his slow acknowledgement that slaves had rights in law. “The film is right to suggest Mansfield is closely associated with the cause, but he did not want to bring down the slave owners in America, or even to end slavery,” Poser said. “He did, however, eventually rule that the practice was so suspect it would have to be set down in deliberate legislation if it was to continue, rather than simply being supported by common law and precedent.” Mansfield’s ruling on slavery in the “Somerset case” of 1772 reads: “It is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.” Invoking habeas corpus, he reasoned that the captain of the ship on which the slave was being deported could fairly be considered to be holding a man against his will. Still, “he was very reluctant to annoy the slave owners and vested interests,” said Poser. “He rather hoped things would just go on as they were, saying ‘I would have all masters think they were free and all negroes think they were not’.”

Like many before him, Poser became intrigued by the story of Mansfield’s home life when he saw the Zoffany portrait at Scone Palace and has said: “I was also drawn to his remarkably clear legal decisions. He did not just give a ruling; he gave guidance on principles of law, many of which are still cited in cases on both sides of the Atlantic.” We see the portrait being painted in the movie.

I recommend going to see this film. I felt about it the way I did about Saul Dibbs’s The Duchess — where I later bought the DVD, had read Amanda Foreman’s book but found the DVD features had much more to tell me and Dibbs was someone who had made good films before. Like The Duchess, Belle exhibits just about all the flaws of costume drama — which ones grate on you, which ones you are aware of, will show as much about you as the film. On Women Writers across the Ages we discussed it, and Elaine Pigeon remembered:

About fifteen years ago I went to visit the Museum of the slave trade in Liverpool. While only a museum, the visit did give me a sense of what the slaves endured, if they survived, the transatlantic crossing. It is estimated that at least 50 million blacks died during the 300 years that the slave trade lasted. It’s an unacknowledged holocaust.

Ironically, Spielberg, known for his feel good films, was a lot more honest in his film Amistid. I think too that the more recent The Butler, yet another feel good film, at least acknowledges the issues more honestly. The impenetrable niceness of the Mansfields in the film Belle disturbed me. I think this guaranteed that the film remain on the surface, did not go beyond conventional costume drama.

Some names named


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