Belle

I recently saw Belle (2013), a film based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a woman of color and status in late eighteenth century England. While the film diverges from the actual facts, it does so to underscore the messages of the film.

Some reviewers have pointed out the “Austen-esque” nature of the story, focusing as it does on marriage as a goal for women, and the conflict between marry for station and marrying for love. While I acknowledge that modern viewers may feel it’s a very Austen story, it also accurately reflects the concerns of women, in this case elite women, of late eighteenth century Britain. Their choices were, as presented, marry or serve the family as spinster chatelaine.

I can see this film being a useful resource for teaching late 18th century British/Atlantic history. The characters discuss, through the course of the film, that trifecta of modern historical analysis: race, class, gender. The film would also be useful for a course on material culture, as it highlights the way people of color were portrayed in paintings of the era (slight spoiler at that link, but only slight). I was occasionally reminded of the blog People of Color in European Art History while watching, and this poster stating that representation matters. The film of course speaks to the present as much as the past, but not in a way which diminishes either message. I look forward to reading more responses to the film.

two women in formal attire.
Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin.

What makes a citizen?

Working as I do with a focus on the period between 1780 and 1830, the War of 1812 frequently drifts into focus. It is not a war with which I was very familiar when I started at this job, and I still think there’s a lot more I could know about it (although I have very little interest in all the movements of all the troops).  Still, I am aware that one of the issues which led to the war was continued impressment by the British Navy of people who considered themselves to be citizens of the United States.

I do not know, and admittedly have not taken the time to discover, how exactly one became a citizen of any nation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Now, of course, we have citizenship applications and tests and ceremonies where you swear an oath, and afterwards you get a new passport. What was it like then?

Yesterday, while in the archives, I came across a letter which mentioned this question of what makes a person a citizen. It is written by a man living in Liverpool, England, to an acquaintance back in the U.S. The man in Liverpool worked for the U.S. Government, and must therefore have considered himself an American, despite having been born before the Revolution. It doesn’t answer my question completely, but it’s an excellent insight into the attitudes which led to a war between the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

“I observe what in America constitutes a citizen of the U. S. differs from what is here considered the Qualification; pro. Ex. a subject of this Country settled since the peace, in the Territories of the U.S. altho’ admitted there a Citizen is nonetheless still held here a subject of this Country.”

Source: James Maury to Thomas Jefferson, [10] November 1791. Papers of James Maury, 1769-1917, Accession #3888 and #3888-a, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.