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|A lady with an intriguing history......
Written by Julie W
(Wednesday, 14 January 2009, at 6:10 a.m.)
I have discovered that Lady Elizabeth, for a woman of her age and situation, has astonishingly little to say for herself.... Letter 45
Lady Elizabeth Finch Hatton was the wife of George Finch Hatton, the owner of Eastwell Park.
That she had nothing to say must have intrigued and possibly annoyed JA. Not only because a silent social partner make life hard work, but because in truth, her life story was fascinating and I think may have influenced JA tremendously especially with regard to the composition and naming of one of her novels :Mansfield Park. Do allow me to explain....
Above is a sumptuous picture of Lady Elizabeth Finch Hatton as a child: this painting is in the ownership of the Earl of Mansfield and it is attributed to Johann Zoffany.
The other girl in the portrait , wearing the turban, is Lady Elizabeth's illegitimate cousin Dido Elizabeth Belle.
Dido was the protégée of the William Murray , the first Earl of Mansfield and the famous judge:
and was the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay (1737–1788), a captain in the Royal Navy and Lord Mansfield's nephew .
Her mother was a black slave of African origin, possibly called Belle, whom Lindsay had taken prisoner in a Spanish vessel in the West Indies and brought to England, where Dido was born, possibly in June 1761. Her baptism took place on 20 November 1766 at St George's, Bloomsbury, London, when Dido was five years old; the parish register records her mother as Maria Bell, though no information is provided about her father.
Dido's historical significance relates to her unusual position as a black girl taken into the care of Lord Mansfield. Lord Mansfield seems to have welcomed Dido into his household as a playmate and later companion for his great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray( later to become the rather silent Lady Eliabeth Finch Hatton), whom Lord and Lady Mansfield had adopted,as they were unable to have children of their own.
Dido lived with the family at their house in Bloomsbury Square until 1780 and then at Kenwood House, Hamsteadtheir country home.
She held a position balanced ambiguously between being a family member and servant and was in charge of the dairy and poultry yard.(Echos of Fanny Price?)
Her familiarity with Lady Elizabeth Murray shocked one Thomas Hutchinson ,the Governor of Massachusetts, when he attended a family dinner at Kenwood in 1779: (please be aware he uses racial term and insults that are not acceptable today,but sadly were in the late 18th century to some but not all people)
A black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies, and after coffee, walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other. She had a very high cap and her wool was much frizzled in her neck, but not enough to answer the large curls now in fashion. She is neither handsome nor genteelpert enough. I knew her history before, but my Lord mentioned it again. Sir John Lindsay having taken her mother prisoner in a Spanish vessel, brought her to England, where she was delivered of this girl, of which she was then with child, and which was taken care of by Lord Mansfield, and has been educated by his family. He calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for showing fondness for her-I dare not say criminal.
Intriguingly Lord Mansfield did not tell Governor Hutchinson that evening that Dido was his nephew Lindsay's own child. The young ladies referred to by Governor Hutchinson in the excerpt above were Lord Mansfield's grandnieces-Anne and Elizabeth-to whom Dido was virtually a sister. All three were treated by Mansfield with the greatest affection.
The portrait of Dido Belle with Lady Elizabeth Murray, shown above, attributed to the fashionable artist Johann Zoffany, who was patronised by, amongst others, Queen Charlotte, shows an attractive woman with dark skin, a long, straight nose, and large, dark eyes. Dido wears outmoded masquerade dress associated with black servants and the exotic while Elizabeth is shown in contemporary fashion. it seems that Zoffany has suggested the relative ambiguity of status between the two sitters in the portrait continuing Dido's strange position in the household even in this picture.
As lord chief justice from 1756 to 1788 Mansfield had jurisdiction over cases involving slaves and the presence of Dido Belle as his ward made some planters sceptical about his judgments. Indeed, Mansfield's judgment in the case of James Somerset in 1772 was popularly and somewhat erroneously believed to emancipate slaves in England. here is a , link to help explain the significance of that case.
Mansfield himself was aware that the Somerset case merely prevented planters from forcibly returning slaves resident in England to the West Indies. Accordingly he appears to have acknowledged the the continued legality of slavery in England, because he was very careful to make a point of stating Dido's freedom in his will of 17 April 1782. See English Common Law in the Age of Mansfield. by James Oldham page 322.
Dido Belle was well looked after by the Mansfield family and was financially secure, though it appears she received nothing from her father following his death. Sir John had no legitimate heir and in 1788 left his son John £1000 in trust. A second child, Elizabeth Lindsay, was also bequeathed £1000: this was previously thought to be Dido, but new research has identified her as Sir John's second illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth Lindsay, or Palmer (born circa 1765).
After Lord Mansfield's death in 1793, Dido received an annuity of at least £100 and a lump sum of £500. Lady Margery Murray also left her £100. Sarah Minney has researched further details on Dido Belle's later life. On 5 December 1793 she married John Davinier at St George's, Hanover Square, London; both were resident in the parish. The couple had at least three sons (the twins Charles and John, and William Thomas) who were also baptized at St George's on 8 May 1795 and 26 January 1802 respectively. Dido Belle died in 1804 and was buried in July that year at St George's Fields, a burial-ground for St George's, Hanover Square, near the modern Bayswater Road; her grave was moved in the 1970s during development of the site. She was survived by her husband, who later remarried and had two more children.See:· Sarah Minney, ‘The search for Dido’, History Today, 55/10 (Oct 2005)
Considering Dido's story,and the Mansfield connection it seems likely that in structuring Mansfield Park JA was influenced by this tale. I have already noted in the past that JA appears to have been an abolitionist,,and I think her use of the Mansfield story in elements of Mansfield Park is a continuation of this.
No wonder she was exasperated by the silent Lady Elizabeth , and little wonder that she must have been familiar with elements of her unusual childhood companion ;-)
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