Thursday, March 17, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Mansfield Park and slavery I

Dido Elizabeth Belle and Elizabeth Murray, attributed to Johan Zoffany, 1779 (detail)

Fanny Price and Dido Elizabeth Belle

A young girl whose parents are not able to raise her advantageously is sent to live with her wealthy relatives. There she is brought up and educated as though she were their daughter.

This is the story of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park (1814); it is also the real-life story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the young woman with the lively, impish expression on the left in the portrait above. Dido was the "natural child" of Captain John Lindsay and a West Indian slave named Maria Belle, or Bell. Dido had been born in 1761 in the Caribbean, where Lindsay's ship HMS Trent had been stationed during the Seven Years' War (Maria Belle may have been imprisoned on a Spanish slave ship captured by HMS Trent). After the war's end, Lindsay returned to England with Maria and his young daughter, and transferred the girl to the care of his childless maternal uncle and his wife. [1]

Her adoptive parents christened her Dido (the name of the mythological queen of the North African city-state of Carthage). At about the same time they also adopted Dido's cousin Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had recently died. They raised the two girls together on terms of equivalence, if not quite of equality (note that in the portrait both women look forthrightly at the viewer, and that their heads are at the same level). The exact nature of the girls' relationship is not known, but from the evidence of the portrait and the account of a contemporary visitor who wrote that Dido "walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other," it seems to have been loving and sisterly. [2]

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that Dido "held a position balanced between family member and servant and was in charge of the dairy and poultry yard," but that status would not explain why she was taught to read and write; provided with a substantial allowance, expensive furniture, and gifts; and why her adoptive father was said to dote on her. [3] The 2007 Slavery and Justice Exhibition at Kenwood House suggested that "her position in the household may have been that of a loved but poor relation"—much like Fanny Price at Sir Thomas Bertram's estate, Mansfield Park. [4]

The name of Dido's adoptive father was William Murray, Lord Mansfield.

In August 1805, Elizabeth, now Lady Elizabeth Finch-Hatton, was visited at her home Eastwell Park in Kent by her neighbor Edward Knight and a family party that included his visiting sister. Although the sister was delighted with Lady Elizabeth's sons, she was unimpressed by their mother, writing in a letter, "I have discovered that Lady Elizabeth, for a woman of her age and situation, has astonishingly little to say for herself..." [5]

Perhaps Edward Knight's sister, Jane Austen, would have more thoroughly enjoyed conversation with Dido. But by this time, Dido had died; she too had married (though to a man much lower on the social scale than Elizabeth's husband) and had children, but had passed away in 1801. Despite their overlapping family connections—the Hattons were relatives of the Bridges who were relatives of the Knights who were relatives of the Austens—there is no evidence that Jane Austen ever met Dido. But she almost certainly knew her story, and from the evidence of Mansfield Park, adopted elements of Dido's situation in creating her heroine Fanny Price. [6]

Next time: Mansfield Park and slavery II: Lord Mansfield and the antislavery movement
Last time: Pride and Prejudice and the marriage market

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:

  1. J. K. Laughton, rev. Clive Wilkinson, "Lindsay, Sir John (1737–1788), naval officer," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Lindsay and Maria Belle next traveled to Florida together in 1764. They apparently later returned together to England, but in 1772 Lindsay deeded a plot of land to Maria (at the corner of Lindsay and Mansfield Streets) and granted her freedom (see
  2. Thomas Hutchinson, 1779 (Dido was 17 or 18 at the time), as quoted in Paula Byrne's The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, William Collins, 2014, p. 214.
  3. Reyahn King, "Belle [married name Davinier], Dido Elizabeth (1761?–1804)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,
  4. Slavery and Justice Exhibition at Kenwood House, 
  5. Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, 24 August 1805.
  6. In Paula Byrne's The Real Jane Austen, whose chapter "The Daughter of Mansfield" was the inspiration for this post, the author speculates that Edward Austen's adoption by the wealthy Knights, or Elizabeth Murray's adoption by the wealthy Mansfields, might have been the inspiration for Fanny Price in Mansfield Park (see Chapter 1, "The Family Profile"). But Edward was adopted as the son and heir of the Knight family estate; elements of Fanny's situation seem to parallel much more closely that of Dido, the "loved but poor relation."


  1. OK, that was *fascinating* and I didn't know any of it! Thanks!

    1. Jean, thanks for the kind words! As I mention above, this post was inspired by Paula Byrne's The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. Although I think Byrne sometimes makes direct assertions where a degree of doubt is called for, her book is really interesting and highly recommended.

      There is also an entertaining (if distinctly fictionalized) movie that's been made about Dido Elizabeth, called Belle (2013); it stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

      Thanks for your comment!