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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, May 3, 2014

“…Her skin was very brown…”: Is Marianne Dashwood the biracial Dido Elizabeth Belle in the “Zoffany” portrait?

After Diana Birchall, in Austen-L and in Janeites, posted a link to a 2010 article in Persuasions Online about the real life Dido Elizabeth Belle and her curious relationship to Lord Mansfield, and also about Diana's having seen the new film Belle which is based on the historical Belle, but diverges in certain important ways (making her an heiress instead of the poor relation), I responded as follows: 
Diana, I am very glad to hear you liked the new film Belle, that’s encouraging, and most of the reviews I’ve seen are also positive. I just spent an enjoyable hour reading various Internet articles, and watching different interviews with, respectively, the screenwriter, Misan Sagay, and the director, Amma Asante (and by the way, I read in IMDB that there was a serious enough disagreement about screenwriting credit for this issue to need to be decided---in Ms. Sagay’s favor, as it turned out-- via arbitration). Anyway, I’m now more curious to see the film than when I first heard about it last year, based on the Austen connection.

In the near future, I will have some comments to make about Kenyon-Jones’s interesting 2010 article that you linked to, as to the allusion to the real life Dido Elizabeth Belle (whom I’ll call Belle for short) in the character of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. However, my time is short today, so, as my Subject Line suggests, this post will be limited to my unorthodox approach to the real life Belle, viewed through the unlikely lens of Marianne Dashwood in Sense & Sensibility.

My initial inspiration arose, ironically, by virtue of a lucky typo in the 4/25/13 article by Carrie Rickey about the film Belle, which included an initially incorrect version of the following comment by the director:
“Ms. Asante, a fervent Janeite, sees her film as Sense & Sensibility, with a black woman as Elinor, the sensible one, and her cousin the more impulsive.”

The earlier incorrect version of that sentence had identified Belle not with the sensible Elinor but with the impulsive Marianne. Although that corrected typo seems to be in synch with the comments made by the screenwriter Sagay in a recent interview when she described her initial inspiration for her characterization of Belle in the film….

“At Scone I found Lord Mansfield, my PLIANT Dido and the REBELLIOUS Elizabeth in the notes in the margins of Lord Mansfield's law diaries and the household accounts.”

…I also get the sense from other stuff I’ve read about the film that suggest it is Belle, the heroine of the movie, who, much more than her cousin, exhibits a very Marianne-like passion for justice, willingness to speak her mind to power, and striving for true romantic love.

Intended or not, the linkage of the impulsive, romantic Marianne Dashwood to the historical Belle struck a responsive chord in my memory as to my prior research. Specifically, I’ve now retrieved from my blog archive the post I wrote over 3 years ago about Marianne Dashwood as a representation of the fictional Dido in Ovid’s Heroides, as a kind of proto-feminist spin on Virgil’s Aeneid:

At the end of my 2011 post, after making a detailed textual case for Marianne as the mythological Dido, I came within a hair of realizing what I just realized this week:

“Apropos Dido and JA, also don’t forget Belle, the biracial grand niece of Lord Mansfield, and one of the most crucial real life models for Fanny Price! JA was well aware of the mythological overtones of Belle’s other name Dido, which were deliberate, and the result of the circumstances of her paternity and eventual transplantation from a slave ship to the “palace” of her kinsman the great English jurist!...”  END QUOTE

I had already correctly noted the Belle in Fanny Price, so it would’ve been only a small additional leap from JA’s alluding to Belle in 1814, to realizing JA might already have done so in a more veiled manner in1811. And….Marianne as Dido Elizabeth Belle would moreover have been in perfect parallel with Marianne as Dido of Carthage!

I.e., think of Marianne as both the real Dido Elizabeth Belle and the mythological Didos, with the added piquancy that Belle may well have been named Dido because of the mythological overtones of her conception and birth---i.e., if Belle was conceived aboard a ship in the Mediterranean Sea after the seduction (or rape) of her slave mother by an English naval officer, a modern-day Aeneas if you will, who eventually took his love child away from, and then perhaps abandoned, the girl’s mother mother. 

But I didn’t make that connection in ‘11, I only made it the other day. And that’s when I realized how perfectly the narrative description of Marianne’s Dashwood’s physical appearance, in explicit contrast to Elinor’s, actually fits with Marianne as the biracial Belle.

I.e., please read it through, and tell me if you disagree with my claim that the following passage early in S&S functions perfectly, in eight different ways, as a description of the appearance of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her white cousin in the famous  “Zoffany” portrait that now hangs at Scone:

“Miss Dashwood had a delicate complexion, regular features, and a remarkably pretty figure. Marianne was still handsomer. Her form, though not so correct as her sister's, in having the advantage of height, was more striking; and her face was so lovely, that when in the common cant of praise, she was called a beautiful girl, truth was less violently outraged than usually happens. Her skin was very brown, but, from its transparency, her complexion was uncommonly brilliant; her features were all good; her smile was sweet and attractive; and in her eyes, which were very dark, there was a life, a spirit, an eagerness, which could hardly be seen without delight.”

Note off the bat how striking it is that JA’s narrator in Sense & Sensibility damns Elinor’s good looks by faint praise, by the explicit comparison to Marianne’s. I.e., Elinor gets one sentence of one line in length containing three bits of not especially eloquent praise. Then Marianne is explicitly described as “still handsomer”, followed by six lines filled with all sorts of varied and almost poetic praises of Marianne’s extraordinary beauty.  JA didn’t have to present these descriptions this way, it was a conscious decision on JA’s part to undercut  Elinor’s beauty. So what if such paragraph actually is a brilliantly sly translation of the so-called Zoffany portrait of Belle and her cousin from paint on a canvas to words on a page!

Now here's a closeup of Dido in the portrait, the better to see her more clearly:

Let’s break the paragraph down piece by piece, seven in all:   

ONE: Marianne has “the advantage of height” over, and is less classically-figured than, Elinor: In the portrait, Belle is both taller and less symmetrically figured than her cousin.

TWO: Marianne is “more striking” than Elinor. In the portrait, as has been noted  by many commentators, Dido’s striking looks, including her very expressive features, draw all attention away from her blandly expressionless cousin.

THREE: Marianne’s face is “so lovely” that it’s obviously not just “common cant”. In the portrait, Dido‘s more exotic face is the one of  the two you’d expect to see in a fashion magazine or on a movie screen, whereas her cousin’s never would  be seen there. 

FOUR: Marianne’s “skin was very brown, but, from its transparency, her complexion was uncommonly brilliant. Although I have not seen the Zoffany portrait up close in person, the image I see on the Internet does indeed seem to show Belle as having very brown skin, but her face shows a transparent complexion that could fairly be described as brilliant.

FIVE:  Marianne’s “features were all good”. That is certainly the case with Belle in the portrait,

SIX: Marianne’s  “smile was sweet and attractive”. What first catches our eye when we look at Belle in the portrait is her smile, which is both sweet and attractive.

SEVEN: In Marianne’s “eyes, which were very dark, there was a life, a spirit, an eagerness, which could hardly be seen without delight.” And all of those descriptors also fit perfectly with the Belle we see in the portrait.

Let me put it another way. If that passage from S&S were inserted into a blurb hanging on the wall next to that famous portrait, and if you were told a fib about it, i.e., that this description was actually of Belle in that particular portrait, I submit to you that you’d accept that explanation without any hesitation, because that passage so perfectly describes the young biracial woman who steals the show from her bland white companion or “sister” depicted in the portrait.

Again, the quoted passage from Sense & Sensibility is the verbal equivalent of the portrait in eight different  ways. I find it a very promising lead. But it is obviously only the beginning of the argument I would be making as to why JA might have written Marianne so as to remind her closely attuned readers of the real life Belle.

Obviously that argument would pertain to the shadow story of the novel, and would involve Marianne being, like Belle, illegitimate, biracial, and yet living in an English white family. It’s something everyone in the novel would be aware of except Elinor. And one avenue I definitely will pursue further is to see if there are more implications of the allusion to the mythological Dido, both Virgil’s and Ovid’s, and how they might jibe with the historical Belle chez Mansfield.

But for now, I will leave with two other textual references to “brown” in Sense & Sensibility, which seem to be throwaway details, but which, when considered alongside Marianne’s “very brown” skin being  a marker of her being biracial, turn out to be very curious indeed.

The first is when Willoughby complains about Brandon being a party-pooper in a mockingly  poetic way:    “I cannot persuade him to buy my brown mare.”

The second is when Robert Ferrars jokes about the absurdity of Edward’s future career plans:  
“The idea of Edward's being a clergyman, and living in a small parsonage-house, diverted him beyond measure;—and when to that was added the fanciful imagery of Edward reading prayers in a white surplice, and publishing the banns of marriage between John Smith and Mary Brown, he could conceive nothing more ridiculous.”

I suggest to you that these two seemingly throwaway details are actually both pointing to Marianne—the first one with Marianne as Willoughby’s “brown mare”, the second with “John Smith” being code for Willoughby (whose Christian name is John, and whose Aunt’s surname is Smith) and “Mary Brown” being code for Marianne (who is a Mary with brown skin). The point? To reinforce the subliminal depiction of Marianne as being biracial.

And there I will leave off, but return within a day or two with some comments on the Kenyon Jones article about Fanny Price and Dido  Elizabeth Belle.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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