For Scott, the portrait itself is a romantic depiction of Belle that he aims to re-examine with his book – the painting’s motifs have not always been fully explored in whitewashed art history, and he has his own interpretation. “The Dido in the portrait is a very romanticised, exoticised, sexualised sort of image,” he says. “She has a lot of the tell-tale relics of 18th-Century portraiture, such as the bowl of fruit and flowers, which all these enslaved young boys and girls are carrying in other portraits. She’s carrying it differently, it’s a different kind of take, but I really wonder what [the artist] Martin was trying to do.” The film also hints at the likely sexualisation of Belle when in one scene a prospective suitor describes her as a “rare and exotic flower”. “One does not make a wife of the rare and exotic,” retorts his brother. “One samples it on the cotton fields.”
In fact, to find a black woman who married into the aristocracy, we have to fast forward another 250 years, when Emma McQuiston, the daughter of a black Nigerian father and white British mother, wedded Ceawlin Thynn, then Viscount Weymouth in 2013. In many ways, the experiences of Thynn (now the Marchioness of Bath) echo those of Dido: in interviews, she has addressed the racism and snobbery she first experienced in aristocratic circles, and her husband has shared that his mother expressed worries about “400 years of bloodline“.
Ironically, there has long been speculation that the Royal Family could itself have mixed-race ancestry. For decades, historians have debated whether Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, had African heritage but was “white-passing” – as is alluded to in Dangerous Freedom. While many academics have cast doubt on the theory, it’s one that the writers of TV drama series Bridgerton run with, casting her as an unambiguously black woman. The show imagines a diverse “ton” (an abbreviation of the French phrase le bon ton, meaning sophisticated society), with other black characters including the fictional Duke of Hastings, who is society’s most eligible bachelor, and his confidante Lady Danbury. Viewed within the context of period dramas, which typically exclude people of colour for the sake of historical accuracy, Bridgerton’s ethnically diverse take on the aristocracy is initially refreshing. However, that feeling is complicated somewhat by the revelation that the Bridgerton universe is not exactly “colourblind”, but rather what is being depicted in the series is an imagined scenario where the marriage of Queen Charlotte to King George has ushered in a sort of post-racial utopia.