The country’s first black aristocrats

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Whitewashed stories about the British upper classes are being told again and again. Fedora Abu investigates the Bridgerton effect and speaks with author Lawrence Scott about Dangerous Freedom.

For centuries, Britain’s wealthiest and most exclusive institution, the Royal Family, has been synonymous with whiteness. And yet, for a brief moment, she was there: Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Sussex, a biracial black woman, on Buckingham Palace’s balcony. Her picture-perfect wedding to Prince Harry in 2018 was a remarkable fusion of black culture and centuries-old royal traditions, with an African-American preacher and a gospel choir performing at St George’s Chapel in Windsor. Who would have guessed on that sunny May afternoon that things would unravel the way they have three years later?

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Despite being hailed as a trailblazer, the Duchess of Sussex is not the first woman of colour to have served in the British upper classes. Lawrence Scott’s latest novel, Dangerous Freedom, tells the story of real historical figure Elizabeth Dido Belle, the mixed-race daughter of enslaved woman Maria Belle and Captain Sir John Lindsay. Born in 1761, she was raised alongside her cousin Elizabeth at Kenwood House in Hampstead, London, by her great-uncle, Lord Chief Justice William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield. It was a rare, if not unique, arrangement, and she is now regarded as Britain’s first black aristocrat.

Scott began his investigation of Belle’s story with a portrait. The only known image of Belle, painted by Scottish artist David Martin, depicts her in a silk gown, pearls, and a turban, next to her cousin in the grounds of Kenwood. It’s one of the few written accounts of Belle’s life, along with a mention in her father’s obituary in the London Chronicle describing her “amiable disposition and accomplishments”; a recollection by Thomas Hutchinson, a guest of Mansfield, of her joining the family after dinner, and her uncle’s fondness for her. These small nuggets, combined with years of broader research, allowed Scott to gradually piece together a narrative.

While Scott was researching Dido Belle’s life, so were the creators of Belle, the 2014 film starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw that was many people’s first introduction to the forgotten figure. With those same fragments, director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay crafted a story with two classic Hollywood plotlines: a love story, as Dido seeks a husband, and a moral one, as we await Mansfield’s decision in a landmark slavery case. As one might expect, Belle is subjected to racist comments from her peers and, according to Hutchinson’s account, does not dine with her family – nor does she have a “coming out” party. She does, however, appear to have a warm relationship with her cousin “Bette” and her “Papa.” Lord Mansfield, as well as a romantic interest in John Davinier, an anglicised version of his real name D’Aviniere, who is portrayed in the film as a white abolitionist clergyman and aspiring lawyer.

There’s this kind of whitewashing of these bits of colonial history – not really owning these details, these conflicts – Lawrence Scott–2022–right-preparation-material

Scott was two draughts into his novel when Belle came out, and he was concerned that the stories were too similar – but it turned out that they weren’t. Dangerous Freedom follows Belle’s life after Kenwood – now known as Elizabeth D’Aviniere and married with three sons – as she reflects on a traumatised childhood and longs to learn more about her mother. Her husband is a steward, not a lawyer, and her cousin “Beth” is more snobbish than sisterly. Even the painting that inspired the novel is reframed: where many see Dido presented as an equal to her cousin, Scott’s Dido is “appalled” and “furious”, unable to recognise the “turbaned, bejewelled… tawny woman”.

Scott believes that The portrait is a romantic depiction of Belle that he hopes to re-examine in his book – the painting’s motifs have not always been fully explored in whitewashed art history, and he has his own interpretation. “The Dido in the portrait is a very romanticised, exoticised, sexualised image,” he explains. “She has many relics of 18th-century portraiture, such as the bowl of fruit and flowers that all of these enslaved young boys and girls are carrying in other portraits. She’s carrying it differently, it’s a different take, but I’m curious what [artist] Martin was trying to accomplish.” In one scene, a prospective suitor refers to Belle as a “rare and exotic flower,” implying that she will be sexualized. “One does not marry the rare and exotic,” his brother retorts. “It’s tested in cotton fields.”

Post-racial utopia–Tips-To-Pass/wiki

To find a black woman who married into the aristocracy, we must go back 250 years to 2013, when Emma McQuiston, the daughter of a black Nigerian father and a white British mother, married Ceawlin Thynn, then Viscount Weymouth. In many ways, the experiences of Thynn (now the Marchioness of Bath) echo those of Dido: in interviews, she has addressed the racism and snobbery she first experienced in aristocratic circles, and her husband has shared that his mother expressed worries about “400 years of bloodline”.

Ironically, it has long been speculated that the Royal Family may be of mixed ancestry. Historians have debated for decades whether Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III, had African ancestry but was “white-passing” – as mentioned in Dangerous Freedom. While many academics have questioned the theory, it is one that the writers of the TV drama Bridgerton have chosen to run with, casting her as an unambiguously black woman.

The show imagines a diverse “tonne” (a contraction of the French phrase le bon tonne, which means sophisticated society), with other black characters such as the fictional Duke of Hastings, society’s most eligible bachelor, and his confidante Lady Danbury. Bridgerton’s ethnically diverse take on the aristocracy is initially refreshing in the context of period dramas, which typically exclude people of colour for the sake of historical accuracy. However, that feeling is complicated somewhat by the revelation that the Bridgerton universe is not exactly “colorblind,” but rather depicts an imagined scenario in which Queen Charlotte’s marriage to King George has ushered in a sort of post-racial utopia.

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