I have a terrible habit of procrastinating. I’m easily distracted when I am on a computer and instead of doing what I’ve intended to do, I end up reading blogs, Buzzfeed, looking up stuff on Wikipedia and watching Youtube. I am more aware of that bad habit and it has been my goal this year to not be so distracted.
On one of my deviations, I ended up reading about Dido Elizabeth Belle (1751-1804). She was an English woman who was the illegitimate daughter of Captain John Lindsay and an African woman named Maria Belle. Her father took responsibility for her when her mother died and asked for her to be raised by his uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield. The Earl was reluctant at first but welcomed her into the family. She was like a cherished daughter to the Earl as his wife could not bear children.
Dido’s circumstances were extraordinary in her time because she was half black and illegitimate. Most children who were from unmarried couples were shunned by society. Usually, they were hidden away and their true heritage would be kept a secret. The father was not obligated to pay for child support and some abandoned women when they got pregnant.
Mixed race children, especially those where one of the parents is not Caucasian was considered scandalous. During colonial times, some men got into relationships with the local people and slaves which were frowned upon. Their mistresses were kept back in their homelands and were a secret.
Belle is a film about Dido Elizabeth Belle. It begins with Dido being taken by her father to be raised by her uncle William Murray after her mother died. Initially, her family is reluctant to take her because of her background and worried about their reputation. The Murrays also raise their other niece, Elizabeth Murray who is also illegitimate but unlike Dido, she is not of mixed race.
The film then progresses to when the girls reach adulthood. Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) have two different futures because of their circumstances. Dido’s family doesn’t think anyone of rank would want to marry her and will not allow her to marry anyone who is socially beneath her. They ask her to prepare for life as a spinster and running the household. Elizabeth is to prepare for her debut into society and must marry someone rich as she has been left with no fortune.
Dido attracts the attention of Oliver Ashford (James Norton) who is prepared to overlook her heritage. Dido’s family approve of the match as he is from a suitable family. While Dido finds Oliver pleasant enough she is displeased by his stance regarding her African heritage and believes he only wants her because of her fortune. In addition, she is also wary of Oliver’s brother, James (Tom Felton) who thinks having a mixed race person in the family would sully their name.
Dido also meets John Davinier (Sam Reid), a young law student who is championing the ending of slavery. They are both interested in the case of the Zong Massacre which involved the deliberate drowning of diseased slaves. Dido’s uncle, Lord Murray is deciding upon the case which will set in motion the path to abolishing slavery. Her uncle doesn’t understand why Dido would be concerned over the case as her own circumstances are so good. Dido explains that she’ll always be a daughter of a slave and that it could have been her life without the intervention of her father.
I really enjoyed this film because it’s based on a real person and I liked the romance and the issues about race and social divide. I knew that Dido would have a happy ending because I had already read her biography but I didn’t know how they would show it. There isn’t much written about her but people speculate about her life. I read that she was an intelligent and charming woman.
|The real Dido with her cousin Elizabeth|
I gather from watching the film that she lived in extraordinary circumstances. While she was a noblewoman who lived in a beautiful estate and had her own fortune, she was still stuck by the conventions of her time. Her family preferred for her to eat alone when company came over to avoid shocking them with the presence of a mixed race person. She was too high born to eat with the servants but too inferior to eat with guests. People stared at her and said unkind remarks just because of the colour of her skin.
Dido was always an outsider because of her heritage which is a little saddening. Thankfully people are more accepting of people of different races in modern times. If Dido was born in our time, she could be whoever she wanted to be. I’m guessing with her intelligence, good looks and fortune, she would be in a position to have a successful life.