Britain’s first black aristocrats (Review of “Dangerous Freedom”)

Fedora Abu (BBC News, May 9, 2021) reviews Lawrence Scott’s Dangerous Freedom in light of “the Bridgerton effect.”

[. . .] Although heralded as a history-maker, the Duchess of Sussex is not actually the first woman of colour to have been part of the British upper classes. Dangerous Freedom, the latest novel by Trinidadian author Lawrence Scott, tells the story of the real historical figure Elizabeth Dido Belle, the mixed-race daughter of enslaved woman Maria Belle and Captain Sir John Lindsay. Born in 1761, she was taken in by her great-uncle, Lord Chief Justice William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield, and raised amid the lavish setting of Kenwood House in Hampstead, London, alongside her cousin Elizabeth. It was a rare arrangement, most likely unique, and today she is considered to be Britain’s first black aristocrat.

Scott’s exploration of Belle’s story began with a portrait. Painted by Scottish artist David Martin, the only known image of Belle shows her in a silk dress, pearls and turban, next to her cousin, in the grounds of Kenwood. It’s one of the few records of Belle’s life, along with a handful of written accounts: a mention in her father’s obituary in the London Chronicle describing her “amiable disposition and accomplishments”; a recollection by Thomas Hutchinson, a guest of Mansfield, of her joining the family after dinner, and her uncle’s fondness for her. These small nuggets – together with years of wider research – allowed Scott to gradually piece together a narrative.

As it happened, while Scott was delving into the life of Dido Belle, so were the makers of Belle, the 2014 film starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw that was many people’s first introduction to the forgotten figure. With those same fragments, director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay spun a tale that followed two classic Hollywood plotlines: a love story, as Dido seeks to find a husband, but also a moral one as we await Mansfield’s ruling on a landmark slavery case. As might be expected, Belle is subjected to racist comments by peers and, in line with Hutchinson’s account, does not dine with her family – nor have a “coming out”. However, she is shown to have a warm relationship with her cousin “Bette” and her “Papa” Lord Mansfield, and a romantic interest in John Davinier, an anglicised version of his actual name D’Aviniere, who in the film is depicted as a white abolitionist clergyman and aspiring lawyer.

Two drafts into his novel when Belle came out, Scott was worried that the stories were too similar – but it turned out that wasn’t the case. Dangerous Freedom follows Belle’s life post-Kenwood – now known as Elizabeth D’Aviniere and married and with three sons, as she reflects on a childhood tinged with trauma, and yearns to know more about her mother. Her husband is not an aspiring lawyer but a steward, and cousin “Beth” is more snobbish than sisterly. Even the painting that inspired the novel is reframed: where many see Dido presented as an equal to her cousin, Scott’s Dido is “appalled” and “furious”, unable to recognise the “turbaned, bejewelled… tawny woman”.

For Scott, the portrait itself is a romantic depiction of Belle that he aims to re-examine with his book – the painting’s motifs have not always been fully explored in whitewashed art history, and he has his own interpretation. “The Dido in the portrait is a very romanticised, exoticised, sexualised sort of image,” he says. “She has a lot of the tell-tale relics of 18th-Century portraiture, such as the bowl of fruit and flowers, which all these enslaved young boys and girls are carrying in other portraits. She’s carrying it differently, it’s a different kind of take, but I really wonder what [the artist] Martin was trying to do.” The film also hints at the likely sexualisation of Belle when in one scene a prospective suitor describes her as a “rare and exotic flower”. “One does not make a wife of the rare and exotic,” retorts his brother. “One samples it on the cotton fields.” 

Post-racial utopia

In fact, to find a black woman who married into the aristocracy, we have to fast forward another 250 years, when Emma McQuiston, the daughter of a black Nigerian father and white British mother, wedded Ceawlin Thynn, then Viscount Weymouth in 2013. In many ways, the experiences of Thynn (now the Marchioness of Bath) echo those of Dido: in interviews, she has addressed the racism and snobbery she first experienced in aristocratic circles, and her husband has shared that his mother expressed worries about “400 years of bloodline“.

Ironically, there has long been speculation that the Royal Family could itself have mixed-race ancestry. For decades, historians have debated whether Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, had African heritage but was “white-passing” – as is alluded to in Dangerous Freedom. While many academics have cast doubt on the theory, it’s one that the writers of TV drama series Bridgerton run with, casting her as an unambiguously black woman. The show imagines a diverse “ton” (an abbreviation of the French phrase le bon ton, meaning sophisticated society), with other black characters including the fictional Duke of Hastings, who is society’s most eligible bachelor, and his confidante Lady Danbury. Viewed within the context of period dramas, which typically exclude people of colour for the sake of historical accuracy, Bridgerton’s ethnically diverse take on the aristocracy is initially refreshing. However, that feeling is complicated somewhat by the revelation that the Bridgerton universe is not exactly “colourblind”, but rather what is being depicted in the series is an imagined scenario where the marriage of Queen Charlotte to King George has ushered in a sort of post-racial utopia. [. . .]

With all those palaces, jewels and paintings, it’s not hard to see why contemporary culture tends to romanticise black figures within the British upper classes. Works such as Dangerous Freedom are now offering an alternative view, stripping the aristocracy of its glamour, giving a voice to the enslaved and narrating the discrimination, isolation and tensions that we’ve seen still endure. The progressive fairytale – or utopian reimagining – will always have greater appeal. But perhaps, as Scott suggests, it’s time for a new story to be written.

Dangerous Freedom by Lawrence Scott (Papillote Press) is out now. 

For full review, see https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20210429-race-royalty-and-the-black-aristocrats

Also see previous post https://repeatingislands.com/2021/02/20/lawrence-scotts-new-novel-dangerous-freedom-rescues-the-figure-of-dido-bell/

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