Monday, May 5, 2014

Dido Belle: Georgian Etiquette's Rigid Rules

 and Fluid Worlds of Romance
Dido Belle was a slave's daughter who lived in the shadows of Georgian opulence. “How may I be too high in rank to dine with the servants but too low to dine with my family?” 
A movie titled "Belle," released in 2013, was loosely based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761–1804), the "illegitimate" daughter of Adm. John Lindsay, and a slave.  Although the movie takes liberal creative license with her story, mixing doses of more fiction than fact, it does address the tightrope she walked to find some place of acceptance in her world of limited privilege.

Born and baptized in the West Indies to Maria Belle, her very life serves as an example of the complexities of position and protocol during the Georgian era if you were a mixed race child of two unmarried lovers.  The world of privilege she was brought up in, simply could not offer the same opportunities available to others of her sex and age, due to her mixed race and questionable birthright.
Falling behind; Dido Belle was not a slave, but not free to be a respected member of her father’s family.

Much of her life therefore, caused her to fall into the shadows of society.  Not a slave, but not free to be a respected member of her father’s family.


Her uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl Of Mansfield, was Lord Chief Justice of The King’s Bench.  He's portrayed in the movie as a very forward thinking man when it came to the pressing issues of the day like slavery. However, in reality he was actually a lot more conservative in his views on the matter not desiring to go against the King’s wishes or to upset those who supported the practice of slavery.  Some of his actions however, did speak clearly that he did on some level value the importance of his niece. When it came to the painting he commissioned to be done of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth, their "equal eye level" positioning in the painting, sent a clear and immortalized message as to her value.  A significant, non-verbal statement, as at a time when people of color were painted, they were usually positioned in a subservient role beneath the person they were being painted alongside.
One strike against you was allowable... Two strikes and you were out! : Etiquette in 18th-century English society, dictated that Dido Belle could not dine with her family because of her mixed race and her lack of legal "legitimacy", though her cousin Elizabeth, who was also "illegitimate" could freely dine with their aunt and uncle.  Dido Belle was allowed to join the family for coffee and conversation after dinner. When she came of marriageable age, and should have made her debut into society, Belle's mixed race and heritage also proved to be one too many stumbling blocks. Her cousin Elizabeth was allowed to be presented and make her debut, however.
As she grew older, she was responsible for the poultry and dairy yards at Kenwood. Being in charge the dairy and poultry yard which would have been a typical occupation for ladies of the gentry and she did receive a modest annual allowance that was several times the value of what domestic servants were paid in that time. She also helped Mansfield with his correspondence which speaks to the fact that she was very well educated. Helping her uncle with his correspondence was highly unusual, since this was normally done by a male secretary or a clerk. Given his position, it also spoke of the confidence he had in his niece’s ability given the high ranking position he held in the legal sector. At his death, he left a provision for Dido Belle in his will, something that was not always done for mixed race or people of color.
This painting of Dido Belle and her cousin Elizabeth, at equal eye level, was a shock to many, in the era it was painted.  It currently hangs in Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland and is owned by the present Earl of Mansfield.
With his wife preceding him in death, Murray was cared for by Dido Belle until his death in 1893. Afterward, Dido married John Davinier, a Frenchman who worked as a gentleman's steward, in December of that same year. Her last living descendent of record is her great-great-grandson Harold Davinier who died in 1974.

While Dido Belle’s story is unique, it was not on some levels, as unusual as people may be led to believe. Free people of color, and / or those of mixed race, had lived in Britain and Europe since the Elizabethan Era.

“…back in Shakespeare's day, you could have met people from west Africa and even Bengal in the same London streets. Of course, there were fewer, and they drew antipathy as well as fascination from the Tudor inhabitants, who had never seen black people before. But we know they lived, worked and intermarried, so it is fair to say that Britain's first black community starts here.
There had been black people in Britain in Roman times, and they are found as musicians in the early Tudor period in England and Scotland.  But the real change came in Elizabeth I's reign, when, through the records, we can pick up ordinary, working, black people, especially in London.  Shakespeare himself, a man fascinated by 'the other', wrote several black parts - indeed, two of his greatest characters are black - and the fact that he put them into mainstream entertainment reflects the fact that they were a significant element in the population of London.  Employed especially as domestic servants, but also as musicians, dancers and entertainers, their numbers ran to many hundreds, maybe even more.
And let's be clear - they were not slaves. In English law, it was not possible to be a slave in England (although that principle had to be re-stated in slave trade court cases in the late 18th Century, like the Somersett case of 1772).  In Elizabeth's reign, the black people of London were mostly free. Some indeed, both men and women, married native English people.”
 BBC History Magazine
Given the fact that free people of color also freely intermarried native English people during that time, it would not been strange to see children that looked like Dido Belle in the community. However, around 1600, England had begun see the presence of free people of color as a cause for great concern because their presence had greatly increased due partially in fact that blacks had begun to flow into their society in greater numbers, due to their liberation from Spanish slave ships. The collective attitude toward people of color turned negative which may explain why by the time Dido Belle was born 161 years later, English society was not very welcoming of the presence of people like her. Their presence was seen more as a nuisance than a novelty.

Despite the prevailing attitudes toward people of  color or mixed race, their presence continued to exist in English society. Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Wife of King George III though German, was directly descended from a black branch of the Portuguese royal family, related to Margarita de Castro e Souza, a 15th-century Portuguese noblewoman, nine generations removed, whose ancestry she traced from the 13th-century ruler Alfonso III and his lover Madragana, whom it is believed was a Moor, and thus a black African. 

One look at the paintings of her and it is very apparent that she had black ancestry.  It is interesting to note that she lived during the same time as Dido Belle. Although she was mixed race like Dido she had more of a position of advantage because she was married to the King of England which means despite any personal opinions of people in the society her role and position allowed her to have free and full access to the advantages and privileges that other people of color of her time did not. 


Given the fact that free people of color also freely intermarried native English people during that time, it would not have been strange to see children that looked like Dido Belle in the community. 
The stories of Dido Belle, Charlotte, and other blacks and those of mixed race, do serve as an example of how race and position played a large role in how people were perceived in a society that placed a high value upon image and appearances. Unfortunately race and color could affect one’s standing in society.  

The etiquette books and publications of the time gave no provisions for how situations involving people of color or mixed race in English society, were to be addressed. There was no written etiquette for those who fell outside the realm of the working class and domestic servants. More than likely, each situation was handled on a case by case basis, which may explain why some people of color have a place in the historical records and some do not.


Compiled and submitted by Demita Usher

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Moderator and Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedi