Telling History versus Story Telling


The Kenwood portrait of Dido and Elizabeth, now at Scone Palace and attributed to Zoffany

I have just been to see the film Belle, the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate great niece of Lord Mansfield, daughter of a black mother, and the sparkling personality who shines out of a dual portrait that for many years had her labelled simply as the black servant of her cousin Elizabeth Murray. The differences between the story told in the film and the few known facts of Dido’s life lead me to ponder the differences between writing history and telling a story.

Before going to the cinema I had also read Paula Byrne’s book of the same name which, besides presenting the few known facts of Dido’s life, gives an excellent account of the background to her life in the context of the growing anti-slavery movement, and tells the story of the Zong massacre which had a profound influence on public opinion.

This deeply shocking case concerned a heavily overloaded slave ship, poorly navigated on its way to Jamaica, with a crew who jettisoned the ‘cargo’ when water ran short and whose owners then claimed on the insurance. However, it later became clear that the real reason for murdering about 142 souls was that disease had taken its toll and they were of greater value to the owners dead than alive. The first hearing before a jury found in favour of the owners, but the insurers appealed and Lord Mansfield as Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench was then called upon to adjudicate.

The presence of a young mixed race woman in Lord Mansfield’s household, not as a servant, but in many respects as an adopted daughter, was viewed by his contemporaries as having influenced his judgments in both the Zong case and in the legally more significant case of James Somersett. Although the exact wording of the Somersett judgment is only available via press reports (Mansfield lost his library and all his papers when his house was attacked during the Gordon riots in 1780 and Dido, Elizabeth, Lady Mansfield and Mansfield himself only just escaped from the mob) it established the precedent that a slave could not be forcibly removed from England against his will and as such was a significant step on the way to reform and emancipation.

The best historical writing tells a story as true to the facts as the writer can make it, in the full knowledge that there will always be interpretation of those facts – none of us can totally step outside our own time or the limits of our own knowledge and prejudices. The writer of a story based, more or less loosely on historical facts subsumes the history into the need to tell a dramatic tale, sometimes with an implicit political or social message, that they hope will entertain and hold the reader or viewer, and perhaps in the process educate as well.

So how much does it matter if the story teller diverges from the historical facts?

Paula Byrne’s verdict on the film was that “Like all historical-biographical movies, it takes considerable artistic licence even with the few facts that we know about Dido. The Zong case, being more dramatic, is made the centrepiece of the courtroom drama, although the Somerset case was really the more significant for the abolitionist cause. And John Davinier becomes an idealistic clergyman’s son, with a little of the Granville Sharp about him, instead of a faceless French servant. But the spirit of the film is true to the astonishing story of Dido’s bond with Lord Mansfield.”  [Byrne, Paula (2014-04-01). Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle (p. 238). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.]

The man Dido eventually married, after the death of her adoptive parents and the marriage of Elizabeth Murray was some kind of servant, not the crusading son of a vicar portrayed in the film, who is in turn loosely based on the anti-slavery activist Granville Sharp. Dido herself was probably kept more in the background at Kenwood than the film suggests and was certainly not an heiress. Mansfield left her a comfortable legacy and it is possible that her father left her £500, if she is indeed the reputed child Elizabeth mentioned in his Will, but the amounts of money involved were not enough to attract the attentions of an impoverished aristocrat looking for a rich wife as shown in the film. In the film these characters stand as placeholders or exemplars of the attitudes of the day, demonstrating the prejudices and hypocrisy Dido must have faced, but for which we have no specific evidence.

It was brought home vividly to me recently how much the history that I take for granted can be a closed book to others when I was talking to a young woman who had quite literally never heard of the Holocaust, who had no concept of what had happened. Her friend suggested that she should watch The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas as a way of beginning to understand even though that is an entirely invented story.

When Twelve Years a Slave came out it caused a stir, particularly in America, and clearly there were many people who had no idea what slavery had entailed, how appallingly brutal it was, nor the risks run by free black and mixed race people before slavery was abolished. Similarly there has only relatively recently been an awakening in the UK, not simply of the importance of our slave owning past, but of the fact that there had been a considerable black presence in Britain before the eighteenth century. For example see the work of Miranda Kaufmann, who is incidentally a descendant of Robert Cooper Lee.

So to return to my original question, would it matter if someone who watched the film Belle believed every word to be historically accurate? Yes I think it would. I think the story teller has a duty to make clear that their story is ‘based on’ historical fact and is not a historical documentary.

But if watching the film Belle caused someone to be interested in the facts of the case and to try to discover these for themselves then that would I believe be a good thing. Moreover it is a good film, with wonderful settings and costumes and makes very enjoyable viewing!



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