Belle by Paula Byrne is the autobiography of Dido Elizabeth Belle. Born as a result of a liaison between a slave woman and ship’s officer Dido Belle was brought up by a relative of her white father and fostered in what appears to be a loving home with another girl who was a wholly white family member. This all happened in the early nineteenth century when slavery was still legal and the class system in Britain was even more constricting than it is now.
I was looking forward to hearing about how Dido Belle grew up and how the establishment and society adjusted to having a child of mixed heritage in its midst but sadly the book didn’t contain a lot of what I wanted to know. The fact is that we don’t know a lot about Dido Belle and her life. We don’t know where she was born, what happened to her mother, whether her father ever visited her, her exact role in the household where she lived, what she enjoyed doing, her relationship with her foster sister, whether she loved her husband, or anything much really. People who visited the house don’t comment on her in their diaries so we don’t know how they felt and the situation wasn’t covered in the newspapers at the time except for one instance.
The author, therefore, used Dido Belle’s story to talk about society at the time with respect to slavery and to the events which eventually led to its abolition in the UK. Dido Belle’s foster father was Lord Mansfield who was the Lord Chief Justice and involved in two big court cases about slavery which greatly affected public opinion and drove the abolition movement. The author surmises how Dido Belle’s position in his household drove Lord Mansfield’s views but has little evidence, although we are quite sure that he loved her and we know that he was proud of her and made arrangements for her in his will.
The book outlines the British part in the slave trade and how the merchants benefitted from it. The author is clear about the injustices and outlines the events which led to long needed change. This is excellently put and very readable but it is a little frustrating that it is not about Dido Belle specifically. Also, this is not a long book so the author doesn’t go into a huge amount of detail – I have read about these same events in Black and British by David Olusogo which I highly recommend as a more detailed account which puts things into context.
This is not a bad book but it is not the book I thought it would be. The author is not writing about a woman’s life but about specific events which touched on her life which is not the same thing. It is sad but it appears that we will never know more about the life of Dido Belle.