A Portrait and the History It Holds

‘Belle’ and Slavery’s End in Britain

While she was an undergraduate at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in the 1990s, Misan Sagay visited the nearby Scone Palace, where a rare double portrait caught her eye. Painted in the Gainsborough style of aristocratic figures in an Arcadian landscape, the canvas showed two young women swathed in lustrous satin, gleaming pearls circling their swan necks. The vivacious one on the left is biracial; her unhurried companion is white.

Ms. Sagay, who is Anglo-Nigerian, studied the wall label. It read: “Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray, circa 1778.”

Naturally, Ms. Sagay was curious. What of the woman on the left, whose forearm Elizabeth clasps so fondly?

In 2009 Amma Asante, a British-born filmmaker of Ghanaian parentage, received a screenplay written by Ms. Sagay. Attached was a postcard reproduction of the painting. Even before reading the script, Ms. Asante recalled, “I was inspired by the image.” She said that in European paintings of the late 18th century, blacks were often depicted as lower-class figures to affirm the higher status of the white subject. “I knew how unique it was,” she said, “that the black woman was not looking with adoration at the white woman, and that the white woman was tenderly touching her companion.”

Like the painting attributed to Johann Zoffany, the film that resulted from that screenplay, “Belle,” opening Friday, is about blacks and women emerging from the social background to its foreground. Also much like Zoffany’s image, it is a story of an unfamiliar woman painted in a familiar style.

The mystery woman in the portrait and focus of the film is Dido Elizabeth Belle, who lived from 1761 to 1804. Dido (as she is called in Ms. Asante’s movie, which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was the daughter of an enslaved African and a British admiral. She and her cousin Elizabeth (played by Sarah Gadon) were raised as sisters by their great-uncle, William Murray, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). It is likely that Dido’s relationship with Murray, the Lord Chief Justice of England, influenced his thinking on issues of race and equality.

The filmmakers frame Dido’s story much like a Jane Austen narrative and suggest that Dido inspired political and literary milestones. Lord Mansfield ruled in 1772 that “chattel slavery was not supported by law,” and some historians speculate that his legal opinions ultimately led to the outlawing of slavery in Britain 30 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.

Christopher L. Brown, a history professor at Columbia University and the author of “Moral Capital,” about British abolitionists, observed that “Belle’s place in the household left Lord Mansfield more thoughtful about the ambiguous status of all blacks.” Literary scholars say as well that Fanny Price, the antislavery heroine of Austen’s “Mansfield Park,” may have been based, in part, on Dido Belle.

Years after her first visit, Ms. Sagay returned to Scone Palace and found an updated wall label. Now the painting’s subjects were identified as Lady Murray and Dido, the housekeeper’s daughter. “I didn’t buy it,” Ms. Sagay by telephone from Spain. But at that stage, she said, the Mansfield heirs “weren’t so keen” to discuss family history.

While working on another screenplay, Ms. Sagay discovered “by sheer luck, my youngest child’s godmother was friends with the Mansfields.” That gained the screenwriter access to the family archives, where her hunch was confirmed. Dido wasn’t a domestic at all. “In Lord Mansfield’s journals she is referred to as one of the household,” she said.

Ms. Sagay added that family accounts attest that Lord and Lady Mansfield bought equal amounts of silk hangings and dresses for each great-niece. But there was little in the family history and diaries to infer much about Dido’s emotional life. “I used artistic license,” she said of her script.

“Because the filmmakers don’t know much about Belle’s relationships, they could imagine her inner life without getting tangled in the weeds of history,” said Amanda Foreman, a biographer (“Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire”) and historian. “This lets them stick to the core facts,” like the family custom of not permitting Dido to eat with her guardians and cousin when visitors dined. In the film, that prompts Dido’s dry observation that she is “too high in rank to eat with the servants and too low to eat with the family.”

Ms. Asante’s film is filled with the light of 18th-century British painting and crackles with the conflicts of romance and finance that enliven Austen’s writing. Ms. Asante, a fervent Janeite, sees her film as “Sense and Sensibility” with a black woman as Elinor, the sensible one, and her cousin the more impulsive.

Ang Lee’s film adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility” was an inspiration for Ms. Asante. “From the very beginning I wanted to make a movie that had something to say and that was lush and beautiful,” she said. “I wanted the interior lives of the characters to be reflected in the exteriors of the rooms.”

The film engages with the particulars of the British class system of the time, when, as Ms. Foreman noted, “rank defined you, not ethnicity.” Similarly, Dido is a window on what Ms. Foreman called “those swirling 18th-century ferments” of a society on the cusp of change, citing the women-led boycotts of sugar because of the slave labor necessary to its production, and the social rise and political engagement of highly educated blacks like Ignatius Sancho, the freeman, poet and earliest-known black Briton to vote, andOlaudah Equiano, a freed slave turned antislavery activist.

For the actress Phylicia Rashad, who attended a screening this month, “Belle” is a revelation both in the historical broad strokes and the human fine grain. “You know that England abolished slavery before the United States, but you never knew how it came about,” she said. “For those of us who think we know history, we don’t.”

Yet to discuss the film in terms of abolition is to narrow its scope, Ms. Rashad said. “It’s also about a father’s love for a daughter, about a young girl struggling to define who she is and about a woman who changes those around her,” she added.

Yes, yes and yes, agreed Ms. Asante, who reflected, “Sometimes you have to be part of the establishment to change the establishment.”

Published April 25, 2014

Correction: May 4, 2014
An article last Sunday about the new movie “Belle,” which uses some of the themes of Jane Austen’s novel “Sense and Sensibility,” misidentified the character who is the sensible one in that book. The character is Elinor — not Marianne, who is impulsive.

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