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Posts Tagged ‘The real Dido Bell’

Romantic as they seem to us modern folk, stage coaches and sailing ships and horses weren’t the fastest or easiest way to travel the world–nor were they something that everyone in Jane Austen’s England could afford. Unless you were a sailor, a soldier, or a diplomat, you likely spent most of your life in The British Isles. Many never left the county or shire where they were born, and spent their lives with the people in their village. That’s why so much hubbub and excitement ensued when a new teacher, or minister, or peddler arrived in town–or when the gentlefolk from London came to stay at their country estates (we readers and watchers of period dramas could give you plenty of examples here!). Even if you were among the very privileged English youth who took the Grand Tour of Europe, you weren’t as likely to come into contact with non-Europeans. Many parts of the world were yet undiscovered by the West, or were shut away from outsiders, and so it wasn’t often that people saw–much less interacted with–people who looked different from themselves. It’s not like today, where most of us can freely explore almost every corner of our beautiful earth, and where we come in contact with people of different ethnicities and cultures almost every day–if not in real life, than on the Internet or TV.

The Cast of Sanditon

Sadly, the African slave trade was still in existence during Austen’s time, and it was this evil practice that brought many from the African continent into contact with Europeans. Much of this contact was in the Caribbean, where some British had plantations. In my post Jane Austen and Slavery I explored the abolitionists that Austen knew or admired, and the way she raised awareness of slavery in her book Mansfield Park (did you know there are three film adaptations?!). From Austen’s prayers, we can assume she held to the Christian faith–or at least held to the Christian belief that we are ALL descended from Adam and Eve, and therefore all created in the image of God. Not only did she point out the evils of slavery in Mansfield Park, in her unfinished book Sanditon, she went a step further by including a black character, Georgiana Lambe. Georgiana’s father was a plantation owner, and her mother was originally a slave. But now the young heiress has been taken from sunny Antigua and placed in England, in the care of Sidney Parker (heroine Charlotte Heywood’s love interest). In the mini series adaptation of Sanditon, Georgiana (Crystal Clarke) isn’t happy with her situation. But some good things do come from her stay in England–the friendship that forms between Georgiana and Charlotte (Rose Williams) . . . and a little romance, which Charlotte helps Georgiana keep secret from Sidney (Theo James).

Heiress Georgiana Lambe & Charlotte Heywood
Georgiana & sweetheart, Otis

Jane Austen sadly passed away before completing Sanditon, so we don’t know how the book would have been received at the time. But I couldn’t help but recognize the similarities between the fictional Georgiana and the real life woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle, whose story is told in the 2013 movie, Belle. I love searching for connections between fiction and real life! Could Austen have heard of–or even known someone who met–the real Dido Belle? Dido was the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Naval officer, John Lindsay, and a young black woman named Maria Bell, who was a slave on a Spanish ship that was captured by Lindsay. Their daughter, Dido, was eventually taken to England and put in the care of her great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, to be raised on his estate in north London. It’s been speculated that Jane Austen intentionally chose Mansfield as the name of the estate and title of her book, Mansfield Park, in which she addresses slavery. Perhaps with the way her character Georgiana’s life resembles Dido’s, Austen also intended to make connections between the two women.

Dido & Elizabeth, Belle (2013)

As a woman of mixed ethnicity, Dido (Belle), like the fictional Georgiana, faced challenges in English society. The film explores some of the coldness and even open hostility that Dido likely had to endure, even as the niece of a powerful and wealthy man. But she was raised with a cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, and the two seem to have been best friends. One of the wonderful things left from this relationship is the painting we have of the two young women. Today, the painting hangs at Scone Palace in Scotland, which I visited many times when I lived there. If only I’d paid more attention!

Portrait of Dido & Elizabeth
Portrait of Dido & Elizabeth as portrayed in the movie

As Austen only wrote about 20,000 words of Sanditon, we don’t know exactly what she had planned for the life of Georgiana Lambe. Many have continued the work as they thought it should go, beginning with Jane’s niece, Anna LeFroy, who claimed to have discussed the novel with Austen (though Anna wrote quite a lot, she sadly didn’t finish the story). And of course producer Andrew Davies (Screenwriter for Pride & Prejudice, 1995) continued the story as he thought it should go in the 2019 miniseries, Sanditon. There, Sidney, who believes Otis is a no-good fortune hunter, seems to succeed in separating him from Georgiana. In the film, Belle, we also see Dido being pursued by fortune hunters.

Dido and suitor Oliver Ashford (James Norton)
Dido & John Davinier

While we don’t know Davies’ future plans for Sanditon Season 2, and the rest of Miss Lambe’s story, we do know that Dido fell in love and married a Mr. John Davinier, who–from what we can gather–truly cared for her. While the film portrays him as a minister and abolitionist, he was in fact a Steward for a wealthy employer. Dido was left with a modest inheritance from her father and uncle, and the two must have lived in relative comfort. They had 3 sons. Much like Jane Austen, Dido passed away in her early 40s. But for those years she had with her husband and children, I hope she was happy. I hope Andrew Davies will give Georgiana a happy ending, too. Jane Austen insisted that all her heroines have a happy ending, and so I really feel he must!

Have you seen the miniseries Sanditon or the film Belle? Did you notice any similarities between them? How do you think the story will end for Miss Lambe? Belle is the final film in my Countdown to Spring Weekend Movie Pick 🌷 – Find Happy Little Sigh on Facebook, Instagram, or MeWe for the complete list of 26 favorite period drama films!!!

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