I finally saw the new film Belle, a fictionalized account of the real life Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the biracial great-niece of Lord Mansfield, and I may in the next few days post some additional reactions. Suffice for now to say that I enjoyed Belle very much as a film in its own right, and would give it a strong thumbs up. It was moving, well-written and well-acted, especially by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, playing Belle, and Tom Wilkinson, playing Lord Mansfield.
But, as an Austen scholar with a particular interest in the way Jane Austen alluded to Dido Elizabeth Belle in the characters of both Fanny Price and Marianne Dashwood, I did have purist reservations about its significant divergences from historical fact on several key points (making Dido the heiress and her white “sister” Elizabeth dowerless; turning Dido’s real life husband, John Davinier, into an abolitionist lawyer-idealist behaving suspiciously like the real life Granville Sharp who was the lawyer who brought and won the landmark 1772 Somersett slavery case decided by Lord Mansfield; portraying Lord Mansfield in a more favorable light as a reforming jurist than was factual) .
All the same, again, the film worked really well on its own terms, and mine are quibbles of little interest to most of those who would want to see the film. It is a worthy film.
But now, back to the Jane Austen aspects of Belle. There is a Chinese Box sort of nesting going on with the interaction of Jane Austen’s allusions to both the historical Dido Elizabeth Belle, and also to the classically literary, and also possibly historical, Dido Queen of Carthage, whom Aeneas famously abandons, inducing her to kill herself in wild grief.
In that regard, in the aftermath of seeing Belle, it occurred to me last night to briefly revisit my post of one month ago….
…in which I bolstered my 2011 post picking up on Cathy Janofsky’s original suggestion that Marianne Dashwood was based in part on the dark-skinned Dido Queen of Carthage in Ovid’s Heroides (in turn a feminist version of Vergil’s Dido).
That is so Austenesque, for JA to allude to both Didos, picking up on their parallel names as an opportunity to take note of parallels between the lives of Queen of Carthage and the great-niece of Lord Mansfield, and JA’s feminist take on both.
Specifically, I wondered whether JA might, in her characteristic authorial way, have given additional clues to her readers of her allusions to the two Didos with some clever hidden wordplay into the text of either Mansfield Park or Sense & Sensibility.
It took me a few minutes to find the following passage, at the end of S&S, in which, it is obvious to me, JA ironically paints Willoughby as a Dido who wasn’t tragic, in much the same deflating ironical way that JA repeatedly undercuts the idea of Catherine Morland as a heroine in Northanger Abbey:
“Willoughby could not hear of [Marianne’s] marriage without a pang; and his punishment was soon afterwards complete in the voluntary forgiveness of Mrs. Smith, who, by stating his marriage with a woman of character, as the source of her clemency, gave him reason for believing that had he behaved with honour towards Marianne, he might at once have been happy and rich. That his repentance of misconduct, which thus brought its own punishment, was sincere, need not be doubted;—nor that he long thought of Colonel Brandon with envy, and of Marianne with regret. But that he was for ever inconsolable, that he fled from society, or contracted an habitual gloom of temper, or DIED Of a broken heart, must not be depended on—for he did neither. He lived to exert, and frequently to enjoy himself. His wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable; and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in sporting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity.”
As my Subject Line revealed, it is JA’s little joke that Willoughby never “died of” a broken heart, the way DIDO Queen of Carthage did! Instead, he finds solace in hunting, and so is it just a coincidence that much earlier in S&S, we read the following exchange about hunting?:
"And yet two thousand a-year is a very moderate income," said Marianne. "A family cannot well be maintained on a smaller. I am sure I am not extravagant in my demands. A proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters, cannot be supported on less.
Elinor smiled again, to hear her sister describing so accurately their future expenses at Combe Magna.
"Hunters!" repeated Edward—"but why must you have hunters? Every body does not hunt."
Marianne coloured as she replied, "But most people do."
Do you see the two bits of wordplay near the end, that point to Dido? The first is “EveryboDY DO-es not hunt” è DY-DO è DIDO; the second is that Marianne COLOURED—and of course, “coloured” was a common term for black people, so it fits with Marianne’s brown skin. Taken together, we have what I think is, in all of the above context, a clear multi-part allusion to the biracial Dido Elizabeth Belle!
And now, finally I am wondering for the first time, in light of all the above, about the following passage just after Marianne’s romantic first encounter with Willoughby:
"And is that all you can say for him?" cried Marianne, indignantly. "But what are his manners on more intimate acquaintance? What his pursuits, his talents, and genius?"
Sir John was rather puzzled.
"Upon my soul," said he, "I do not know much about him as to all THAT. But he is a pleasant, good humoured fellow, and has got the nicest little black bitch of a pointer I ever saw. Was she out with him today?"
But Marianne could no more satisfy him as to the colour of Mr. Willoughby's pointer, than he could describe to her the shades of his mind.”
Oh, my! How audacious was Jane Austen in that comment by Sir John, which always sounded strange and disturbing to my modern ears. But now, when viewed through the lens of Marianne Dashwood as a representation of the biracial Dido Elizabeth Belle, it’s clear that Jane Austen very much intended to disturb us about casual racism!!
I am eerily reminded of the racist comments that Hutchinson, the Royal Governor Massachusetts Colony, made about Dido Elizabeth Belle’s influence on Lord Mansfield’s personal life and judicial philosophy:
“A BLACK came in after dinner and sat with the ladies and after coffee, walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other. She had a very high cap and her wool was much frizzled in her neck, but not enough to answer the large curls now in fashion. She is neither handsome nor genteel- pert enough. I knew her history before, but My Lord mentioned it again. Sir John Lindsay having taken her mother prisoner in a Spanish vessel, brought her to England where she was delivered of this girl, of which she was then with child, and which was taken care of by Lord M., and has been educated by his family. He calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for showing fondness for her — I dare say not criminal.
A few years ago there was a cause before his Lordship bro’t by a Black for recovery of his liberty. A Jamaica planter being asked what judgement his Ldship would give? “No doubt” he answered “He will be set free, for Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family.”
She is a sort of Superintendant over the dairy, poultry yard, etc, which we visited. And she was called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that, and shewed the greatest attention to everything he said.”
Wow….and finally, Hutchinson’s ugly comment about Dido’s “frizzled” hair not being fashionable also makes me wonder about Frank Churchill’s comments about Jane Fairfax’s hair:
"I believe I have been very rude; but really Miss Fairfax has done her hair in so odd a way—so very odd a way—that I cannot keep my eyes from her. I never saw any thing so outree!—Those curls!—This must be a fancy of her own. I see nobody else looking like her!—I must go and ask her whether it is an Irish fashion. Shall I?—Yes, I will—I declare I will—and you shall see how she takes it;—whether she colours."
….whether she COLOURS….oh my…..
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