Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, May 5 2014 01:00PM

I’m looking forward to seeing Belle, the new movie about the real-life, mixed-race great-niece of Lord Mansfield, the eighteenth-century British judge who made important rulings about Britain’s involvement in the slave trade.


Apparently, the gods of film criticism have decreed that no story about Belle may see print unless it mentions Jane Austen, the touchstone for any female-centered costume drama set in the drawing rooms of Georgian England.


To be fair, the connection isn’t entirely tenuous: some literary critics speculate that Austen set her third novel at “Mansfield” Park in oblique reference to Lord Mansfield, because she wanted her readers to think about how the profits from slavery underpinned that leisured world.


In a story on the film, the New York Times claimed that “literary scholars” even believe Austen might have based Fanny Price on the real-life Belle.


I didn't remember hearing this before, though I freely admit I’m no literary scholar. But judging from the link the Times provided, the only person seeing a Fanny-Belle connection may be an unnamed member of JASNA’s Atlanta chapter. (The fact that the article also calls Fanny “the antislavery heroine of Mansfield Park”--a characterization that is, at the very least, highly debatable--doesn’t inspire confidence.)


Meanwhile, however, the movie has gotten excellent reviews. And of course I’m a sucker for any female-centered costume drama set in the drawing rooms of Georgian England. Since I’m, you know, a Jane Austen fan.



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