“I cannot conceive of a life without you.”
Belle is a film loosely based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle who was raised in the household of uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, and his wife Elizabeth. As a mulatto she would not normally have been expected to be free and educated. At best she might have been used as a companion to Lady Elizabeth Murray who was also the niece of William and Elizabeth. However the importance of Belle to her uncle is clear in the writings of the time where she seems to have been an accomplished support with his papers in the way that a male secretary would normally have been and she also had domestic duties associated with being a gentlewoman. In real life she lived in her uncle’s house for thirty years and received an annuity, which although less than Elizabeth’s would have raised her social standing. The portrait of both girls now hangs in Scone palace after having hung in the home of Mansfield house for generations.
It is clear from the portrait that Belle was given an elevated status over black women in England at the time. Slightly behind Elizabeth and dressed more exotically she is still bejewelled and carrying fruit suggestive of plenty.
The film itself mostly concerns Belle’s place in society and the concept of whether slaves were cargo in a case between an insurer and a slave trader. The position of Belle within the household causes a problem for William Murray as he has to be seen to be ruling on the law in an impartial way.
The secondary theme is the position of women within society where marriage is essential even within the privilege that money bestowed.
Must not a lady marry, even if she is financially secure? For who is she without a husband of consequence? It seems silly – like a free negro who begs for a master.
Belle is attractive enough in the film to have two suitors and the human interest comes from the exploration about which beau she will end up with.
Britain’s historical trade in slavery is a shameful period. Belle’s place in its eventual dismantling may be embellished but at a piece of theatre it will leave you satisfied in the denouement.