Race, Money, and Marriage in ‘Belle’

I saw ‘Belle‘ over the weekend and loved it. Based on a true story, the film has neatly tied loose ends and liberal embellishments that give the story an Austen-esque feeling, but it’s more than just another period piece.

I recommend reading two great background pieces before seeing the movie to get a better sense of who Dido Elizabeth Belle was and what makes her story so remarkable:

My thoughts on the movie contain some plot spoilers, so feel free to come back after you have seen the movie.

The famous picture of Dido and Elizabeth that captured the attention of 'Belle' Director, Amma Asante.
The famous picture of Dido and Elizabeth that captured the attention of ‘Belle’ Director, Amma Asante.

Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay and an unknown woman who was a black slave. Dido lived with Sir John’s uncle, William Murray, the 1st earl of Mansfield and chief justice of the highest common law court. Lord Mansfield’s great-niece Elizabeth also lives with him and  is close in age with Dido.

Dido was, by all accounts, raised alongside Elizabeth in a genteel lifestyle even though she was mixed-race; a rare situation in 18th century Britain.  In the film, while Lord Mansfield  is trying to determine whether people could be considered insurable property through the Zong case, his wards – Elizabeth and Dido – were essentially preparing to become property themselves. Property, that is, of the men they married.

Women and Marriage in 18th Century England

In 18th century England, marriage was not, shall we say, a ‘good deal’ for women, but it was what was expected of them. Aristocratic women were raised with a good marriage as the end goal. Not a marriage for love, but a marriage that would continue two families’ prestige and wealth.

Thanks to coverture, however, once married,  women had no legal or economic rights that remained separate from their husbands. Under coverture, husband and wife were supposedly treated as one entity. In reality, as Margot Finn (1996) points out, coverture “subsumed a married woman’s legal and financial identity under that of her husband” (p. 704).   In Britain, the husband owned and controlled everything, including the money and property a woman took with her into the marriage, unless additional arrangements were made (Erickson, 2005). For the social elite, men judged potential matches on whether the woman in question had the money and the background to make the marriage suitable.

In ‘Belle’, Dido and Elizabeth know full well what they need to bring to a marriage – money and status.

Dido’s Experience

The screenwriters choose to give Dido an inheritance of 2,000 pounds a year after her father dies – a considerable sum for the era. While historians have found no evidence to confirm this – in fact, evidence points to Dido receiving nothing from her father – the addition of inheritance in the movie contributes to society’s confusion about where she ‘ranked’.

Asante can explore a further layer of complexity with this money, asking whether Dido could marry well despite being mixed-race and illegitimate – if she had money. The assumption is that without that money, her marriage prospects would have been practically non-existent. Despicable comments about her origins made by a suitor-turned-fiance (seemingly unaware of his offensive remarks) and his brother (most fully aware) underscore society’s view that her worth as a wife comes in the form of her inheritance. While marrying for money was par for the course, Dido’s position is further complicated by high society’s unwillingness to accept her because of her black heritage. Raised in an aristocratic household, and now a wealthy woman, she remains an outsider. Money, she has; status, not so much.

Elizabeth’s Experience

Compare this with Asante’s portrayal of Dido’s cousin Elizabeth.  Following the death of her mother and remarriage, Elizabeth’s father chooses to give his inheritance to his stepchildren instead. This is, unfortunately, not a surprising choice. Erickson (2005) notes that, as part of coverture, “discretionary division of property (as in the use of wills) was limited” in England (p. 3). There was no guarantee that each child would receive a share of their parents’ estate. As a result, Elizabeth is left with nothing.

Elizabeth is considered a very suitable match until people find out that, though she comes from the right background, she has no money to bring to a marriage. She is immediately discarded and left wondering if she will ever marry. Perhaps this shows her what it’s like to be Dido, cast out of society for reasons that – to a 21st century audience at least – are appalling.

The contrasting frustrations of Dido and Elizabeth highlight the serious limitations for women that came with such rigid social expectations. The fascinating premise and the direct confrontation of the societal norms of the era make ‘Belle’ a standout in the genre. I highly recommend seeing it.

Further Reading

Erickson, A.L. (2005). Coverture and CapitalismHistory Workshop Journal, No. 59, pp. 1 – 16.

Finn, M. (1996). Women, Consumption and Coverture in England, c. 1760 – 1860.  The History Journal, Vol. 39, No. 3, pp. 703 – 722.

King, R.  Belle, Dido Elizabeth. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Accessed May 11, 2014.

Image: Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825), c. 1778. Formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons on May 11, 2014.

 

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