Slavery and Kenwood House - novel gives Dido Belle a voice
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
Dido Elizabeth Belle - the mixed race 18th century resident of Kenwood House - has inspired a film, an operatic trilogy, plays and novels.
The latest is by Trinidadian-born Crouch End author Lawrence Scott, who was first inspired by a 2007 exhibition at the Hampstead mansion on slavery and justice. Dangerous Freedom (Papillotte Press £10.99) "draws together fragments of history to give Dido a voice".
"As a novelist you take those little fragments, but what sort of a story do you make to get to some sort of truth? Not just dates and places but people? Through fiction you can show their interior life."
Dido's mother Maria was a slave in the British West Indies, her father naval officer Sir John Lindsay, who may have found her on a captured Spanish ship. He brought their five-year-old daughter to England in 1765 and entrusted her to his uncle the 1st Earl of Mansfield.
Raised by the Mansfields at Kenwood, she learned to read, became a companion to her cousin Elizabeth, and later helped the elderly Earl with his correspondence. Contemporary accounts describe Dido at 10 reciting poetry "with a degree of elegance", and walking in the gardens, linking arms with family members. A portrait by Scottish artist David Martin was commissioned depicting Dido and Elizabeth in the grounds, and household ledgers reveal costly room furnishings and medical bills.
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But Scott is concerned with "misty eyed romantic renditions" of Dido's life that gloss over the background of slavery and portray her as an equal in aristocratic Georgian society. While Mansfield's will granted Dido her freedom and £500, her cousin Elizabeth inherited £10,000.
"I liked Amma Asante's film Belle but it's like a Jane Austen story centring around marriage and it romanticises Mansfield. Dido was close to Mansfield and looked after him for years through his illness, but he died in 1793 and by the end of the year she's out. She was not an aristocrat, she married a steward, had three children and lived in Pimlico."
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As Lord Chief Justice, Mansfield ruled on significant slavery cases including the Somerset case of an escaped slave due to be sent back to Jamaica, and the Zong massacre in which the crew, faced with insufficient drinking water, threw their human cargo overboard then tried to collect the insurance.
"I see Mansfield as a conflicted liberal gentleman who makes a narrow judgement in the James Somerset case that did not free every former slave in England. The Zong case is not a moral case about people being murdered but an insurance case. When he ruled that the owners couldn't get the insurance, he calls the slave trade odious and says only law can change it, but he doesn't attempt to change that law."
While some see Martin's painting as depicting near equals, Scott says its symbolism is depressingly conventional - it was previously attributed 'A portrait of Elizabeth Murray with a negress'.
"I don't see it as an extraordinary double portrait that is unlike other portraits of black girls and boys in the 18th century. These figures are usually shown fawning, looking up at masters and mistresses dressed in turbans carrying baskets of fruit - the bounty of the Empire. Dido has all these tropes, she's exoticized, sexualized, othered. She seems to be running out of the painting while Elizabeth is seated, the two are not dressed alike and there's no doubt which is the heiress. Even the name Dido reflects the fashion of naming black servants after classical figures like Caesar or Hercules. It's a conflicted portrait and in my book Dido's not happy with it."
Scott's novel reflects Dido's uneasy status within the Mansfield household.
"I wanted to give Dido an interior life, we have different descriptions of her but never from her. What did she think about her life at Kenwood? She had affection for Mansfield and he for her but she was in that position between servant and family, she doesn't eat with them but joins them for coffee afterwards."
Scott places Maria in Pensacola Florida in the 1760s when Dido was young. A plot of land along the western bay front was owned by Sir John Lindsay when he was stationed there in 1764, and in 1774 it was conveyed to Maria Belle for a peppercorn rent while she was living in London. The same year records show a Maria Belle in Pensacola paying a manumission fee of $200 for her freedom, nothing is known of her afterwards, but Lindsay died in India in 1788.
"We have a romantic view of Maria as a slave who Lindsay falls for but he can't make her a lady or have her in this country as his wife and she comes to London as his mistress."
Dido died in 1805 and Scott's novel describes her final days, carrying the trauma of losing her mother and witnessing the slave trade as a child, trying to "recover her memories to recreate her."
Scott, who lived in Trinidad until he was 19 still considers it home. "It's the place where most of my work is set, my memory of it is in my work and this book draws on that common history. I don't write the horror of slavery, but it is part of Britain's past and we must acknowledge the history of colonialism."