Monday, December 29, 2014

Dido Elizabeth Belle

by Lauren Gilbert

A few weeks ago, I watched a movie that I had wanted to see for months, Belle. The screenplay was inspired by the portrait shown above, that of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, both of whom were raised in the home of their respective great-uncle, William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice.

 The movie is beautifully filmed with gorgeous costumes and a very dramatic story line which includes Belle’s inheritance of a large fortune of 2000 pounds a year from her father, an offer of marriage by a young man of good birth (following a crude and indecent approach by his brother who was courting Lady Elizabeth, who was depicted as a poorer relation), and the shared interest in a highly controversial court case with a handsome young lawyer named John Davinier, to be decided by her uncle, an insurance case involving a claim filed following the drowning of 142 African slaves from the ship the Zong  sometime after November 1781 whose owners tried to claim insurance for damaged cargo. This shared interest, in the film, led to romance and Belle’s refusal of a much more advantageous offer. I enjoyed the movie very much and was afterwards led to read more about Dido Elizabeth Belle.

The first thing I learned is that she was actually called Dido. Her last name, Belle, was actually a version of her mother’s name (her name was Maria Bell). Her father, Sir John Lindsay, brought her to Lord and Lady Mansfield in late 1763 and asked them to raise her.

There are multiple theories about the relationship between Maria and Dido’s father. One is that her mother was a slave on a ship captured by him, was kept by him, had Dido, and at some point died when Dido was a young child, and that her unmarried father brought her to his uncle to raise as he was sailing again. Another is that he had brought Maria to England where Dido may have been born and took Maria with him when he sailed back to the colonies leaving Dido in his uncle’s care because of her youth. In 1764, when Dido was aged 3, Lindsay was sent to Pensacola. This would be a reasonable time for Dido have been left in England. It seems that Maria accompanied him.

Margo Stringfield, an archaeologist at the University of West Florida, conducted a dig at the site of a house belonging to a Maria Bell on the corner of Lindsay and Mansfield streets and found a deed signed by Sir John Lindsay conveying a lot in Pensacola to Maria Bell in 1772 and guaranteeing her freedom. It appears that Sir John and Maria returned to London at some point and their relationship continued after he married in 1768. Maria returned to Pensacola in 1774. There is no indication that Sir John or Maria tried to remove Dido from Lord Mansfield’s care.

The next thing I discovered is that there is actually little known about Dido herself. She was in fact raised in the household with the family, dressed, educated and housed on the same footing with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, the daughter of another nephew Viscount Stormont, British ambassador to Vienna, and his wife Henrietta von Bunau. Lady Henrietta died in 1766, and Viscount Stormont did not feel he could bring up a child himself in a foreign country so asked his uncle to care for her. Interestingly, church records record the baptism of Dido Elizabeth, aged 5 years, on November 20, 1766.

 So in 1766 the childless Lord and Lady Mansfield had two little girls of almost the same age to raise and apparently decided to raise them together as sisters. It is very clear that Dido was not raised or treated as a servant. Both girls were well dressed, well educated, and housed as family members. The main difference seems to be that when visitors dined Dido did not join them for the meal but did appear afterwards in the drawing room for coffee where she socialized with them.

Another area of difference was the matter of an allowance: Lady Elizabeth’s allowance was 100 pounds per year, while Dido’s allowance was 30 pounds 10 shillings per year (now worth more than $450,000.00 and twice the annual salary of a coachman at the time). Before assuming the worst, it is important to recognize that Lady Elizabeth was legitimate and titled, and the status and fortunes of their respective birth fathers varied widely. At the time, it appears that the issue of illegitimacy was at least as important (if not more important) as that of race, and Dido was undeniably illegitimate. In Emma, Jane Austen showed that the biggest drawback to a good marriage for Harriet Smith is her illegitimacy. In her last and uncompleted novel Sanditon, Jane Austen included a character, Miss Lambe, who is a West Indian heiress of 17 who is half mulatto and frail. There is no indication that Miss Lambe is unacceptable to society.

By all accounts, Dido had some duties around the house including some supervision in the dairy and poultry yard. It must be noted that it was not uncommon for women of rank to have involvement with the operation of their households including releasing certain sundries that were kept locked up such as tea and stillroom remedies, household sewing, and so forth. Dido’s tasks would not have been considered unusual. Some of what is known about Dido is from the diary of Thomas Hutchinson, Governor of Massachusetts, who was quite outspoken in his entries about the “black” in Lord Mansfield’s house; he seemed quite shocked to see her treated as a family member. At some point, Dido also began to help Lord Mansfield with his correspondence which is a testament to her education.

Lord Mansfield had a long career as a lawyer and a judge. He was also a Member of Parliament for a time and, as previously mentioned, became Lord Chief Justice. As an earl, he also served in the House of Lords. He was known for his gift of oratory and for his ability to focus on the law itself, making rulings on the requirements of the law as opposed to larger issues of morality, fairness, or emotion. He heard and ruled on many cases with far-reaching impact, but he heard two cases which had specific impact on the slave trade and the abolitionist movement in England.

In the first, known as the Somerset Case, he ruled in 1772 that a black defendant named James Somerset could not be taken out of England and returned to slavery in Virginia against his will because he could not say that the law of England allowed such action.

 In the second case, the Zong massacre case mentioned above, in 1783, he heard the particulars of the case, which involved 142 sick Africans were thrown off the ship and left to drown. The owners pled that it was necessary due to a shortage of water to sacrifice those to save the greater number and tried to claim insurance for the damaged cargo based on the loss of the slaves cast overboard. Evidence was presented that disputed the need, and issues of murder and deliberate destruction were raised. He ultimately indicated that the insurers were not liable for mistakes made on board ship.  Although another trial was ordered, there seems to be doubt as to whether the trial was held.  I have found conflicting reports on that. The fact that he had a black girl in his home, for whom he felt affection, was raised by many as an indication that he could not possibly be unbiased in cases involving blacks.

The movie suggests that Lord Mansfield discussed the Zong case with Dido, or at least in her presence, that she had access to notes and paperwork on this case, and that she influenced his thinking on the case. (The business of taking papers out of Lord Mansfield’s house to give to her young lawyer lover was clearly fictionalized.) I think much of this is overblown.

However, I do not see how he could have had a child in his home, raised and educated the child and loved her as it appears he loved Dido, and been unable to recognize her humanity, regardless of colour. The portrait of the two girls that he raised together does not put one above the other. I feel it impossible that he did not recognize humanity in others.

 Certainly, in assisting him with correspondence, Dido may have known some particulars about the Zong case and discussed it with Lord Mansfield. However, it is important to remember his ability to separate his decisions from emotion and morality to base them on the laws themselves. In both cases, he found a basis in law (or rather the lack of law in the Somerset case) to make his rulings. I think it entirely probable that Dido influenced him, directly or indirectly, to scrutinize the law to find solutions that satisfied the legal requirements of the cases at hand and his own conscience.

Lady Mansfield died in 1784, and Lady Elizabeth married in 1785 becoming Lady Finch-Hatton and a neighbour of the Austen/Knight family in Kent. By this time, Lord Mansfield was 80 years old, and in poor health. Two female relatives (middle aged spinsters), Ladies Anne and Margery Murray, joined the household. Lady Anne took over the household, and Dido was more involved with assisting Lord Mansfield, actually writing letters on his behalf involving legal matters.

He updated his will, leaving Dido 500 pounds and an annuity of 100 pounds per year and specifically noted that she was a free woman. Lord Mansfield retired on June 4, 1788, which was the same day Sir John Lindsay (now Rear Admiral) died. He left a legacy of 1000 pounds to an illegitimate son and 1000 pounds to a daughter named Elizabeth who may (or may not) have been Dido. Most sources indicate that Dido inherited from her father, but there seems to be some uncertainty about it. Lord Mansfield died in March of 1793. Viscount Stormont inherited the title and the property. Thanks to Lord Mansfield, Dido was left a wealthy woman by the standards of the day. However, as an unmarried woman she also faced certain difficulties, including where to go.

There is no indication that her cousin Lady Elizabeth offered her a home, and there is also no indication that the new Lord Mansfield was willing to have her stay on. At this point, Dido was about 32 years old, and there is no indication of any romantic interest in her life (nor even a significant opportunity to meet men). As mentioned previously, her illegitimacy would have been a serious impediment to making an advantageous marriage, and it seems likely that race would also have been a consideration. However, marriage would seem to be the logical answer: she was beautiful, accomplished, wealthy and (although illegitimate) had noble blood in her veins.

Dido married 9 months after Lord Mansfield’s death to John Davinier at St. George’s, Hanover Square (one of the most fashionable churches in London) by license on December 5, 1793 according to the marriage register. It is speculated that the new Lord Mansfield had connections from his time in Paris as ambassador, including servants, and may have arranged a match for Dido with someone. It appears that Mr. Davinier was French and had been a steward. Little else is known about him. The fact that the marriage was at St. George’s and by license (an expensive wedding) indicates someone of influence was involved, and the new Lord Mansfield seems like a likely candidate.

Dido and her husband had 3 sons, Charles, John, and William. In 1799, Lady Margery Murray (one of the spinster relative who joined the household after Lady Mansfield’s death) died and left Dido 100 pounds, being careful to add a codicil acknowledging Dido’s marriage and leaving it to Dido out right and to use herself (worded carefully to be sure it went to Dido herself and not to her husband). Dido died in 1804 at approximately 43 years old. The cause of her death is not known. She was buried in St George’s, Hanover Square burial ground on Bayswater Road. Her husband and 2 of her sons, Charles and John, outlived her.

Sources include:
Austen, Jane. Emma. The Novels of Jane Austen. Vol. IV Oxford University Press: reprinted 1988 (3rd edition).
Sanditon. The Works of Jane Austen. Vol. VI Minor Works. Oxford University Press, reprinted 1988.
Byrne, Paula. Belle The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice. HarperCollins: 2014. (Kindle book.)
Jane Austen's Regency World. Lansdown Media, Issue 67, Jan./Feb. 2014. “In the picture?” by Christine Kenyon Jones. PP. 22-26; Issue 69, May/June 2014. “Being Belle” by Anne Horner. PP. 16-22.
Mason, Fergus. Dido Elizabeth Belle: A Biography. LifeCaps: 2014. (Kindle book.)
The Telegraph on line. “Dido Belle: Britain’s first black aristocrat” by Nisha Lilia Diu. 6/6/2014.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, attributed to Johann Zofany, a photo by Paul Barlow taken 6/20/2014, from Wikimedia Commons.


Lauren Gilbert, author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, lives in Florida with her husband. Her second novel is due out sometime in the winter of 2014-2015. She will be at the Amelia Island Book Festival in Feburary. Visit her website at for more information.


  1. Thanks for such a fascinating article, well written and detailed!

  2. Thanks for doing all of that research. You answered so many questions I had! I've looked at the painting many times, both before and after seeing the movie twice, and see Dido as being featured in it as somewhat secondary and maybe a bit subservient, though still exceptional for the times.

    1. I too think she seems a bit "lesser" but in an affectionate way, and perhaps that is because she was illegitimate and not titled. She certainly looks treasured and loved. I think her stance in the picture might indicate that she was a person of personality.

    2. Thank you both for your replies. Somehow, I never saw Dido as a lesser or secondary subject in the portrait-she has so much more life, and has so much more style than poor Elizabeth. It's almost like an orchid and a tea rose sitting next to each other.

    3. But Elizabeth is in the foreground, seated like the typical high-born model for a portrait, almost seeming to affectionately calm Dido down from a lively personality to one who can sit for moment for a portrait.

    4. Or to slow her down! I do love this painting. Elizabeth is in the center, as you say, but I think Dido might have completely cast her in the shade if brought more to the foreground.

  3. A great precise and very helpful. Only last week I was trying to remember Dido's name- but totally failed, so a very timely post. Thank you.
    G x

  4. It is important to distinguish between the movie (which is partly fiction) and the real world. In the movie, Dido inherits £ 2,000 from her father. In the real world she did not inherit anything from him. Her father left £ 1,000 to be given to two other children.

    In the movie, John Davinier is the son of a clergyman who wants to become a lawyer. He is also an ardent abolitionist. In the real world, Davinier was a servant. We do not know if he was an abolitionist. But it is true that he married Dido in 1793, shortly after the death of Lord Mansfield.

    There are several minor flaws in your essay about Dido:

    (1) You say John Lindsay brought Dido to Lord Mansfield in 1763. This is not correct. He brought her to Lord Mansfield in 1765. At the time she was about four years old.

    (2) The Zong massacre took place in 1781. The case was heard by Lord Mansfield in 1783. You say: "He ultimately ruled in favour of the insurers against the owners." This is not correct. He merely ordered that the case be reviewed again, this time based on all the relevant evidence.

    In the movie, Lord Mansfield rules against the owners (Dido and Davinier are ecstatic about it). In the real world he did no such thing.

    (3) Lord Mansfield died in 1793. You say at this point Dido was 30 years old. This is not correct. She was born in 1761, so she was 32 years old when he died.

    As you say later: she died in 1804, when she was 43 years old. In other words: she was born in 1761.


    Torben Retboll

  5. Regarding the painting of Elizabeth and Dido: you say this painting is attributed to Johann Zofany (whose last name is spelled Zoffany).

    The German painter Johann Zoffany lived 1733-1810. Previously, the painting was attributed to him, but today this idea has been rejected.

    Perhaps the painter is the Scottish artist David Martin (1737-1797) who did a large painting of Lord Mansfield around 1776.

    Whoever was responsible for the painting of the two young ladies, it seems it was completed in 1779, when Elizabeth and Dido were almost 20 years old.

    If you edit your original post, you can correct the minor flaws which I have pointed out here. I suggest you do that.


    Torben Retboll

  6. Thanks for your message. I am glad to see that your original post has been revised. I would like to add two references:

    (1) Dido and Elizabeth were raised at Kenwood House. There is a book about this place: "Kenwood: The Iveagh Bequest" written by Laura Houliston and Susan Jenkins and published by English Heritage in 2014 (52 pages).

    (2) The painting of Dido and Elizabeth remained at Kenwood House until 1922 when most of the furniture was sold at auction. A few precious items were not sold. Instead they were moved to Scone Palace, the Scottish residence of the Murrays, near Perth, and the birthplace of William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield. The painting is still on display at Scone Palace.

    There is a book about the place: "Scone Palace" written By Jamie Jauncey and published by Jarrold Publishing in 2015 (56 pages).

    Both guidebooks are well-written and well-illustrated. I have reviewed both of them on Amazon UK.

    PS. My review of the film "Belle" is posted on Amazon UK.

    Best wishes,

    Torben Retboll


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