A portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle that was exhibited at her former home, Kenwood House, inspired author Caitlin Davies to find out more about the young woman whose story is woven into this suspenseful novel.
Caitlin had been intrigued by Dido’s story since she saw the fascinating 18th-century portrait of a black woman in a beautiful silk dress standing slightly behind her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, when she visited Kenwood House in Hampstead in 2007 with her daughter.
Very little is known about Dido, except that she is believed to have been the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman known as Belle.
Dido spent the first 30 years of her life at Kenwood House as a member of the household of the first Earl of Mansfield, William Murray, who was her great-uncle.
The search for more information about Dido’s life and what life was like for a mixed race woman living among English nobility in the late 18th century is one of the themes in this engaging novel, much of which is set in Hampstead and the grounds of Kenwood.
“I was born and bred in Kentish Town and as a kid we would cycle to Kenwood House and have beans on toast in the cafe, which was very different then,” says Caitlin.
“But I never knew that she lived there, so that was where it started from, and the idea of writing about Dido just remained in the back of my mind.”
Like Caitlin, Rosie Grey becomes fascinated by the portrait of Dido and who she was after she visits Kenwood House.
A former teacher, Rosie goes to some lengths to find out more about the details of her life, involving Ella, the older of two children she is looking after, in the project.
Day to day, Rosie navigates the difficulties looking after Ella and her younger brother, Bobby. But amid the domesticity and the trips to Kenwood House and its archive department to unearth the few scant details about a young woman who may well have influenced Lord Mansfield to take a stand against slavery, there’s something else going on.
There’s a niggling unease about why Rosie went to so much effort to land herself a job looking after the children of Jonas Murrey while he’s away on business in America.
“I wanted someone reading it to feel a bit unsettled,” says Caitlin. “I didn’t want people to feel that the children were going to come to harm, but it’s just that idea that the role of the babysitter is very interesting, because it’s basically a stranger in someone’s family and they have that access to very intimate things.
The third woman whose story is told is that of Muriel Wilson, who was taken into a children’s home in Kent in 1950 at the age of four.
We learn about her life through the records kept in the home and her memories of growing up bewildered and alone in the care of adults whose behaviour was sometimes cruel and often uncaring.
Like Dido, Muriel is an illegitimate child, although her mother is English and white and her father is a black American GI, a fact that she suffers for throughout her young life.
The lack of records on black Americans who served in the war and a belief at the time that it was best that illegitimate mixed race children weren’t told anything about the past means that there is very little to go on if women like Muriel want to piece together the story of their life.
“I was really shocked when I started to research the novel how little there was out there about children whose fathers were black Americans,” says Caitlin.
“And when I read that one authority had put mixed race children into compulsory care, I just thought, whoa!, I never knew that, and it’s always when you have that thought that you’ve got something.”
It’s Muriel’s story, infused with the sadness of growing up not knowing why her parents had abandoned her, that has a ripple effect throughout the lives of the other characters in the book. This culminates in some remarkable and moving scenes as the true facts of Muriel’s story emerge – exposing a reality that is in many ways more dreadful than anything already imagined.
This article first appeared in the Camden New Journal.