Snap Review: Belle – The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice by Paula Byrne

Title: Belle – The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice

My rating: 3/5


The illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy and an enslaved African woman, Dido Belle was sent to live with her great-uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, one of the most powerful men of the time and a leading opponent of slavery. Growing up in his lavish estate, Dido was raised as a sister and companion to her white cousin, Elizabeth. When a joint portrait of the girls, commissioned by Mansfield, was unveiled, eighteenth-century England was shocked to see a black woman and white woman depicted as equals. Inspired by the painting, Belle vividly brings to life this extraordinary woman caught between two worlds, and illuminates the great civil rights question of her age: the fight to end slavery.

Snap Review:

I am not usually a fan of nonfiction books (because they don’t read like a story/narrative), however, this was a quick read of a story I have a personal racial interest in. I did break the cardinal rule and saw the movie first and that was beautifully done that I had to dive deeper into the true story and not just “based on true events”.

Although the focus is on the Lord Chief Justice, it reveals much about his role in moving towards the abolition of slavery. I was pleased to see the strong relationship Dido Belle has with her adoptive father and sister. It was disheartening to learn that there is not much known about Dido Belle herself – understandable considering the racial and status divide in England then. Because of this lack of recorded history, I appreciated the analyzing of other interracial marriages at the time to give a broad picture of what Dido Belle’s marriage to John Davinier could look like. I agree that in order to learn about Dido Belle’s life, we must take a closer look at the Lord Chief Justice since he was integral to her life even before he adopted her into his wealthy family as the uncle to her birth father. With what Byrne was able to collect and research, I feel that she compiled a thorough narrative of life in this time period and the challenges of slavery and human rights of Africans in the courtroom. A sensitive and yet relevant topic of discussion, Byrne reveals truth in mixed race individuals living in communities that don’t reflect their own skin.

“Newspapers failed to mention Dido’s presence in the house – as so often, she was airbrushed out of history” (Byrne 163)

“{they} assumed that the beautiful black girl in the background was Elizabeth Murray’s maid… It was only in the 1970s and 1980s that research was undertaken…Her presence in the household and Lord Mansfield’s adoption of her as a cherished daughter, ensued that he viewed the atrocities of the odious slave trade through a personal lens, through the eyes of a much-loved black woman” (Byrne 237)

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