Belle: A New View of Eighteenth-Century Racism

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Belle (2013), directed by Amma Asante and written by Misan Sagay, tells stories that are by turns deeply familiar and completely fresh. You need only to have read a Jane Austen (1775-1817) novel or two, or seen any of the movie adaptations, to guess the troubles that Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825) (Sarah Gadon) will face on the marriage market. After the death of his first wife, Elizabeth’s father has, at the instigation of his new wife, disinherited her, his eldest daughter, and moved to Europe. Few families among the upper echelons of late eighteenth-century London society will welcome a bride without a dowry, no matter how impeccable her lineage. Even when her vulnerability unleashes a streak of jealous cruelty in an otherwise sweet temper, Elizabeth has our sympathy, because learning that most of the people in her circle calculate a wife’s worth in pounds per annum clearly intensifies the pain of her double abandonment.

But Elizabeth’s life lessons are just the backdrop to another coming of age drama that we haven’t encountered before. The film’s protagonist is Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsey (1761?-1804) (the stunning Gugu Mbatha Raw), Elizabeth’s even more beautiful and accomplished cousin, who has also been raised very properly at Kenwood House in Hampstead by their uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield. Dido, as she is known, is Elizabeth’s best friend, de facto sister—and, in many ways, her complement or counterpart. Dido’s father, Captain Sir John Lindsey (1737-1788), a Royal Navy admiral, had loved Dido’s mother, Maria Belle, an African woman whom he had rescued from a Spanish trading ship in the Caribbean, and he provides well for his daughter. Whereas, unlike Elizabeth, Dido has the wealth to shore up her status, her illegitimate birth and mixed race are glaring blights on her eligibility among the elite.

If Elizabeth’s predicament is predictably touching, the thoughts and feelings elicited by Dido’s discovery of her society’s bigotry are more complicated since none of our usual templates of moral outrage really fit here. Yes, Dido is a victim of an ugly mix of snobbery, racism, and sexism (though these concepts did not exist as such in the eighteenth century). Yet the fate to which she has apparently been condemned is a life of luxury and relative independence on a stunning country estate. Would lifelong subordination—that is, marriage—to a nobleman, the future that both she and Elizabeth have aspired to, necessarily be better? As embodied by the girls’ great-aunt, spinsterhood is not glamorous, certainly, but it’s not so terrible either: Penelope Wilton gives Lady Mary a mix of self-righteousness and sincere concern that is not unlike that of Isobel Crawley, the character she plays on the ongoing UK TV series, Downton Abbey.

Especially unsettling is the dawning realization that Dido’s great-uncle, William Murray (1705-1793), the first Earl of Mansfield, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (Tom Wilkinson), whom she and Elizabeth both call Papa, is the one making the greatest effort to prescribe her role. His justification uses the insidious, preemptive logic that still supports so much social oppression: he wants Dido to know and internalize her inferior place among the aristocracy—down to the minutely ranked seating arrangements—so that she won’t be hurt or caught off guard by prejudice. He genuinely wants to do well by her—to protect her. Moreover, it is clear that Lord Mansfield is a man of character, whose personal and legal decisions have been guided by his respect for conventions and precedents, not as expressions of truth, but as tools of social harmony for strategic and creative use. Indeed Dido’s excellent upbringing has been possible because he takes full advantage of his prerogative to determine his ward’s treatment in his household.

Fans of Austen on film will perhaps be surprised to find that not only is the courtroom a significant setting in Belle but that its concerns filter through the drawing room as well. Specifically the film deals with the famous case of Gregson v. Gilbert, now best known as the Zong massacre trials and the beginning of the end of the British trade in slaves. In 1783, an insurance company accused a shipping firm of fraud, after they filed a claim for the loss of their so-called cargo, which consisted of 142 sick and dying slaves, who had been thrown overboard by the Zong’s crew when they were allegedly short of water. Though Lord Mansfield is deciding the case, Dido hears about it from John Davinier (Sam Reid), the son of the local vicar; this young man with upstart ambitions and a passion for the cause of abolition becomes the catalyst of Dido’s awakening. To side with Davinier and his radical friends against the shipping company is to recognize the inalienable humanity of all people, black no less than white, and the fallibility of her great-uncle, who has not yet arrived at this insight. The trial is therefore both a metaphor for and a vehicle of Dido’s own efforts to grow up—to assert her independence from the family who has raised her and, notwithstanding all the ways she has been taught to downplay or dismiss it, to recognize and value her own African ancestry. In the conceit of the film, it is Lord Mansfield’s love for Dido that in turn improves him, thus changing British policies on and attitudes towards slavery.

Belle tackles the crucial role of representation in the development (or not) of racial identity through the theme of the portrait. In an early scene, the young Dido, played with a compelling quiet intelligence by Lauren Julien-Box, regards the black youth at the margins of the paintings of her noble ancestors and wonders if they forecast her own place in this strange new household. Years later, when Dido has to sit for a family portrait that her great-uncle has commissioned, her awkwardly erect pose speaks volumes about the anxiety that comes with finding oneself the subject of someone else’s art. At one point she is startled to discover that Mr Davinier’s eyes are on her as well. Whom do these men see when they look at her? When the actual portrait of the cousins is finally unveiled, it affirms that the beauty, dignity, and magnetism of Mbatha Raw’s performance has a strong historical basis despite the dearth of factual evidence about Belle’s life and experience. More broadly, it becomes an homage to painting and film as sister arts, each of which possesses the power to bring the past to life as it transports viewers into a continuous present.

Austen was interested in how love affects the mind—how it speeds, slows, or resets the rhythms of our thinking. In her novels, embodied desire features only in the cautionary tales involving libertine characters like Lydia Bennet, Henry Crawford, and John Willoughby. But the film adaptations have not had this limitation: even those viewers who delight above all in Austen’s deliciously distanced voice (and who are inclined to complain about the irony lost through the translation to film) cannot help but enjoy the bodies in love—the breaths and sighs and cries and snorts and strides and kisses and (my favourite) the near misses—that have been actors’ and directors’ gifts to Austen fans. Strangely Belle seems to revive the convention of feminine sexual modesty. Asante wants to show that genuine, lasting attraction spurs and is spurred by shared political values, yet privileges principles over racing hearts in this dialectic. Watching, my mind never stopped; I was never swept away. On the other hand, I did admire the film’s several striking performances of corrupt desire and desire’s absence. Dido giggling for the benefit of a young bachelor is so incongruous that it’s as if our heroine has suddenly been taken over by a Valley girl. Later when Elizabeth asks Dido to describe how her connection to this man feels, she says, “It’s perfect, perfect,” though her tone and stony face betray only numbness and confusion: shouldn’t she feel more intensely about such a conquest?

In the eighteenth century Britain was the largest slave trader, taking more than 40,000 Africans from their homes each year and forcing them into hard labour in their colonies around the world. Yet in the popular imagination this period is much more closely associated with elegant domestic plots. Patricia Rozema’s memorable 1999 adaptation of Mansfield Park, Austen’s novel about a poor girl raised on the estate of her aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Bertram, finds a new meeting point between the traditional form and this brutal chapter of British history by showing the steep emotional costs—for all involved—of the Bertrams’ plantation in Antigua. Asante owes debts both to the plot of Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) and Rozema’s reinterpretation. Her original contribution is to expose the lines of culpability and complicity with a restraint rarely seen anywhere in mainstream cinema.

This review originally appeared on ABO Public: An Interactive Forum for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830.

Danielle Bobker teaches eighteenth-century literature in the English department at Concordia University in Montreal. She is currently finishing a book about the intimate closet in eighteenth-century literature and culture and starting new research on the complicated feelings represented in and generated by satire. She also loves to watch, write, and argue about movies.
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