Paula Byrne, Read by Maggie Mash

Book cover image

Narrated By: Maggie Mash

Duration: 6 hours and 19 minutes

What to expect

The extraordinary true story behind the film Belle. The life of Dido Elizabeth Belle – the first mixed race aristocrat who was brought up as the adopted daughter of Lord Mansfield – the Lord Chief Justice of England. Now a Major Motion Picture.

Beautiful, wealthy and sophisticated, Dido Belle appears, in her famous portrait alongside her ‘sister’ and companion Lady Elizabeth Murray, a vision of eighteenth-century aristocratic virtue. But Dido Belle was no normal eighteenth century Lady, and this was no common painting. Adopted and raised by Lord Mansfield – one of the most powerful men of the day – Dido Belle’s mixed race and illegitimacy became the controversy of English high society. Born to a captured slave mother and a captain in the Royal Navy, Dido’s evident grace and adoption by the Mansfield family to be raised as a daughter in Kenwood House challenged English notions of race at their highest rank.

Meanwhile, as Lord Chief Justice of England, Mansfield presided over the case that would come to be known as the Zong affair – a crucial legal ruling that would galvanise a nascent abolitionist movement and radically alter attitudes towards the barbarism of the Atlantic Slave trade. From the elegant surroundings of Kenwood (reopening after extensive renovation in November), Dido Belle and Elizabeth, to the economics of the Caribbean and the horrific journeys of African slaves to the New World, Paula Byrne vividly depicts for the first time the diverse contexts of this controversial painting. The portrait shocked its contemporary viewers but also resonated with the public of the time – the name of Lord Mansfield was synonymous with the great civil rights question of the age. Today the picture is presented as an icon of black female history.

Telling the story behind the major new film starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson and Miranda Richardson, this book is the real life of Dido Belle.


True stories of discovery, History

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‘A touching account … artfully constructed’ Sunday Times

‘The theatrical zest of the narrative, which is a tie-in with a movie of the same name, holds it all together’ The Times

Praise for film previews of ‘Belle’:

‘A lovely, female-centric romance that completely reinvents the period movie in a way that will resound for quite some time’ Empire

‘Elegant and emotionally satisfying … this handsome period piece tells a continually fascinating, unusually layered story’ Variety

Praise for Paula Byrne’s ‘The Real Jane Austen’:

‘The portrait of Austen that emerges is sparklingly multi-faceted, catching the light in intriguing ways … her Jane is far less likely to go for a quiet walk in the garden than she is to be whisked into town in search of a velvet cushion, a necklace or a smart new dress’ Mail on Sunday

‘Engaging, compelling, a delightful and engrossing book. Of course we all know that the "real" Jane Austen will forever be a mystery, but most 21st century Janeites will adore this one. Byrne's passion is nothing if not persuasive’ Sunday Times

‘Brilliantly illuminating … riveting. By focusing, chapter by chapter, on one thread or another of Austen's experience, Byrne allows us to grasp the richness of her inner life’ Simon Callow, Guardian