Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Elizabeth Murray, artist unknown. (Private collection, Scone Palace, Scotland.)
The portrait of Belle and her cousin is revealed at a crucial moment in Amma Asante’s 2013 film. Until this moment in the narrative all the other painted depictions of black people who Belle has seen, whether in other fine paintings hanging at Kenwood House, or crude tavern signs, have been signs of black inferiority. Finally, she sees herself.
The portrait is unusual in art history terms because it depicts a black woman and a white woman whose faces, and eyes, are at the same level in the composition. Although there are important distinctions between the two women, in their poses, styles of dress, and gestures, there is also a visual balance and equivalence between them which, as the film shows us, was by no means common in visual representations of black people.
Much of the discussion of Asante’s film has focused on the historical accuracy of the film, perhaps a reaction to the way in which the film was framed as an important intervention into the silence on race, slavery, and black subjects in cultural representations of British history. This question of accuracy is a common enough tactic of diversion from the questions that the film tries to raise, and it inevitably occurs whenever a scholar or writer makes an intervention into the politics of representation. This is not to say that we should not strive to make films or write novels that take history seriously, but it is to point out that the politics of historical representation, scholarly or otherwise, are always already shaped by what it is we are allowed to say. To say that Belle is an historically inaccurate film is to ignore the director’s intention to guide us towards a reflection on what it means to be represented. Where Asante’s film asks, what is it that a woman of colour sees when she looks at the world, critics answer, you’ve used the wrong colour for the world.
The structure of the narrative leads the viewer from what we see when we look at ‘historical’ depictions of eighteenth-century England, much like the paintings Belle sees on the walls of Kenwood House, to the moment when she finally sees herself represented in a way that is both recognizable to her and is a kind of revelation. She sees herself as she lives, on affectionate terms with her cousin, but she also sees herself as she has never (yet) experienced, which is as an equal.
It would be tempting to jump straight to the notion of representation as mirror here, but much earlier in the film there is a moment when Belle actually does look at herself in a mirror and a quite different scene ensues. It is a raw and painful scene for any person of colour to watch, because what happens when Belle looks in the mirror is a moment of powerful self-hatred. She looks at herself, touches her own skin, then begins to hit and pull at herself. (Thank you to this site for making the stills of the film available.)
Belle has access to a mirror. She can see herself in a looking-glass at any moment she chooses. What she does not have access to is a means to represent herself.
The Belgian literary critic George Gusdorf was one of the first scholars to consider autobiography a serious enough genre to require theorizing. In fact he considers autobiography to be the genre of Western civilization par excellence because it is the natural culmination of the Western capacity for self-reflection and self-examination. This capacity is possible, in part, as a result of the technology of the mirror. As he writes,
The primitive who has not been forewarned is frightened of his reflection in the mirror, just as he is terrified of a photographic or motion-picture image. The child of civilization, on the other hand, has had all the leisure to make himself at home with the changing garments of appearances that he has clothed himself in under the alluring influence of the mirror (‘Conditions and Limits of Autobiography’, 33).
Gusdorf collapses mirrors, photographs, and films into one, but I would argue that mirrors, as a form of reflection, are quite different from representations such as photographs and film, and that to miss the distinction is another version of the criticism that Belle is historically inaccurate. Questions of accuracy and reflection proceed from a logic that is very sure of what is, from a position as writer or viewer with a secure, and already secured, relation to representation. What is so interesting about Asante’s film is her ability to dramatize the other side of representation, the person whose relationship to representation is not yet in her hands, but who needs representation, as much as reflection, to make sense of herself.
The painting of Belle is not wholly separate from her reflection–reflection and representation do have a relationship to each other–but it is something more than mere reflection, mere accuracy. It is a representation of other possibilities of being Belle. As Misan Sagay, one of the earlier screen writers on the film, and Amma Asante have spoken about in interviews, seeing the original portrait of Belle was a similar kind of moment for them as artists. Sagay and Asante saw in one artist’s representation from the eighteenth century that it could be possible to write and produce other kinds of representations of women of colour in the twenty-first century.
Two moments in the film suggest just how important representation is. The first, as I noted above, is the fact that looking in a mirror does not help Belle. The second is that it is not Belle’s relationship with her concealed suitor Mr Davinier that is transformed by the end of the film, but her relationship with the man who stands in the place of her father, Lord Mansfield.
One of the first things that Lord Mansfield does when young Belle enters the house is to show her the family portraits, the pictures of the great men who have gone before her. Here, as for Gusdorf, representation works like a mirror for him too. He sees himself in that lineage, he understands his place as someone who has to uphold the traditions and trajectories established by what is, what has been, and what he knows. As a result of this, the portrait of Belle and her cousin affects him as deeply as it affects Belle. He and Belle are by themselves when they see the portrait for the first time, and the scene is a crucial repetition of the scene in which he has shown Belle who the Murray family is. This time, he sees that Belle is his family. He has said as much, and acted upon it throughout the narrative, but now he also sees it represented in a way that he did not understand before. Mr Davinier knows very soon after he has met Belle that he loves her, and there is no transformation for him to undergo (which is perhaps why he takes pleasure in observing her portrait being painted and she feels so ashamed of being watched). Lord Mansfield needs a representation to understand that he has not really seen what he has already felt. He has loved Belle almost since he first met her too, but he has not known what that love represents about him.
Self transformation is not the result of seeing yourself reflected in a mirror, or in paintings, films or novels that you take for accurate portrayals of life. The transformations we long for, love and freedom, come through repeated and creative processes of representation. We see ourselves when we have the means to represent ourselves, and we transform ourselves when we use those means.