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Paula Byrne – Belle

August 19, 2015

44. Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice by Paula Byrne (2014)

Length: 307 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History

Started: 20 July 2015
Finished: 23 July 2015

Where did it come from? Downloaded from Amazon.
Why do I have it? Book club pick. (There’s some suggestion that Belle’s story provided the inspiration for Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park – Austen met Elizabeth Murray later in life, and the stories about Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, would have been well known to her as well. So we read Mansfield Park, and then we read this one.)
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 20 July 2015.

An adopted black
daughter might influence his
thoughts on slavery.

Summary: It starts with an painting: from the late 1700s, it depicts two young women, both in fine dresses, one sitting on a bench and reaching out to hold the arm of another that’s walking past. Nothing unusual – except one of the two girls is black. The girl in the portrait is Dido Belle, the acknowledged daughter of Sir John Lindsay and a slave that he had rescued from a Spanish slaving ship. Lindsay left his daughter to be cared for by his uncle, William Murray, Lord Mansfield, who also had the care of another niece, Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died. Little is known about Dido directly, but her uncle and guardian, Lord Mansfield, was also the Lord Chief Justice of England. Belle’s position in society was certainly unusual – of noble blood and rearing but illegitimate, and black in a time when slavery was outlawed in England itself, but where the profits made from slavery in the colonies made up a substantial portion of the British economy. Lord Mansfield presided over several key cases that would lay the groundwork for the abolition of the British slave trade, and how much those decisions were influenced by his adopted daughter was – and remains – a source of much speculation.

Review: I learned quite a bit from this book – although not exactly about what I thought I was going to. Historical records about Dido herself are quite scare – some mentions in various legal documents (wills, mostly), a few passing references in letters and journals, and her eventual marriage record. (Presumably there was more that was lost in a fire at Mansfield’s London house.) So this book, despite the title, actually doesn’t spend most of its time talking about Dido, but focuses much more on Lord Mansfield and the various court cases that led up to the abolition of slavery in Britain. This wasn’t a topic that I knew much about (perhaps because I fell asleep while watching the movie Amazing Grace three times before giving up and sending the DVD back to Netflix), and while Belle did occasionally get a little dry in the very heavily legalese parts, it mostly laid out the issues and there relevance quite clearly. I also appreciated that in places where little or nothing was known about Belle and her situation, Byrne filled in the gaps not with speculation, but with comparisons to other similar (but better-documented) situations of the time. I thought that was an effective technique for coaxing a biography out of relatively little source material, and it helped to provide a more holistic picture of attitudes towards race and slavery in Britain in the late eighteenth century. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If it’s a time or a topic that interests you, then this book provides a nice introduction to the subject in an accessible and easy to follow manner.

P.S. For what it’s worth, I also quite enjoyed the movie that was released coincident with this book. It focuses in on only one of the court cases, that of the slave ship Zong, which arguably wasn’t the pivotal case, and it shoehorns in a love story that was probably not particularly realistic, but overall was very well done if you like period pieces.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: The Book Blogs Search Engine is only turning up movie reviews, but none for the book. Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: A portrait from the late eighteenth century, it depicts two beautiful young girls.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • Location 227: “‘It is reported, the poltroon commanders of these vessels, had the impudence to give out they would take the Trent; though when within sight of their enemy, they thought proper to fly away with all speed, and leave their friends a sacrifice for their presumption.’” – An utter coward.
  • Location 336: “Before they set eyes on the ocean the Africans had been captured, marched in ‘coffles‘, chained together, and sold at market.” – A group of animals, prisoners, or slaves chained together in a line.
  • Location 351: “When she was a young girl she and each of her sisters was dressed in an osnaburg, a rough linen shroud-like garment, to be taken to the marketplace.” – A heavy, coarse cotton fabric, used for grain sacks, upholstery, and draperies.
  • Location 626: “The moisture seeped through the cones, leaving the muscavado pure white, and shop-ready.” – Unrefined or incompletely refined sugar that still retains some molasses, which gives it a brownish color.
  • Location 1160: “He strongly felt that the sclerotic legal system was completely unsuited to Britain’s position as ‘the greatest manufacturing and commercial country in the world’.” – a hardening, a debilitating lack of progress or innovation within an institution or organization.
  • Location 2088: “The letter concerns a highly technical point in a marine insurance case, Lockyer v Offley – whether the clause in the policy which covered loss of a ship if seized by his Majesty’s Customs for barratry (a fraud committed by the master of a ship on the owners, in this case smuggling on his own account) was operative.” – An unlawful breach of duty on the part of a ship’s master or crew resulting in injury to the ship’s owner.
  • Location 2187: “She was told by the housekeeper that he had not been downstairs for four years, ‘yet she asserts he is by no means superannuated, and frequently sees his very very intimate friends’.” – Retired or ineffective because of advanced age.
  • Location 2381: “Ground-floor wings were linked to the piano nobile of the main house by descending curved passageways.” – the main floor of a large house, containing the reception rooms: usually of lofty proportions

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