Just Finished Reading: Belle – The True Story of Dido Belle by Paula Byrne (FP: 2014)
Without a doubt Dido Belle (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the 2013 movie) lived a very strange life – indeed and incredibly lucky one too. Born in the second half of the 18th century in England she grew into a seemingly confident, well educated, financially secure woman who was, at least on occasion, the talk of the country’s social elite. Not too surprising you might think – until you discover that not only was Belle black but was actually the illegitimate daughter of a liaison between a decorated ship’s captain and a captured slave. Technically, and legally, Belle herself was born a slave and yet managed to avoid everything that went along with that most cruel of positions. Her father, Sir John Lindsay, had other ideas for his daughter. Not only did he officially recognise her (an untypical reaction in itself) he left her in the hands of a wealthy and positioned relative – Lord Mansfield, later Lord Chief Justice of England. Probably originally conceived as a companion for their adopted niece (the Mansfield’s were childless) Dido Belle became a part of the family and received an education similar to the most educated women in the land. Mansfield’s enemies (of whom he had many) thought him bewitched by this dark beauty – for beautiful she turned out – but he seems to have given such mutterings little thought and dotted on both of his young wards. Yet these were turbulent times – especially as slavery was still very much a reality for millions of men, women and children not as lucky in their fates as Dido Belle. Her story was, in a very real way, the mirror image of their story.
I bought two copies of this book when it came out in paperback. One for me (naturally) and one for my friend who had seen the movie not long before (something I am yet to do). After reading it she pronounced her disappointment with it that, until now, had put me off reading further. Firstly I must say that I can see why she found this book so unsatisfying. Although it purports to be the true story of Belle herself it really is nothing of the sort. What it does read like is a research project that started with the best of intentions but then, because of lack of documentary evidence, crashed and burned – but the author wrote the book anyway! Yet that is not to say that the resultant volume is bad or in any way poorly written – it isn’t. But the book is not about an individual who, through an accidental act of fate got incredibly lucky. The story the book tells is actually rather more interesting than that. The story it tells is one of the darkest periods in human history when, purely for the pursuit of profit, human beings were trafficked from one side of the Atlantic to the other and sold into slavery – by the million. Casting her light on the institution itself and those responsible for it – and those increasingly opposed to it – the author tries (with some limited success) to illuminate Belle’s life with reflected light rather than direct visualisation. The documentary evidence is thin indeed and much of the book is informed speculation rather than hard fact. Indeed the author says that the film goes well beyond her educated speculation into the grey area between complete fabrication (I am exaggerating somewhat here) and artistic licence.
As a biography, despite being billed as such, it is a failure. But as a history of the beginnings of the global abolition of the slave trade it gives an interesting insight into the culture and thought patterns of both the pro and anti-slavery camps. Much more on this subject to come. Reasonable.