An epic piece of work that makes very bold choices.
Papillote Press, 2020
Review by Nicole-Rachelle Moore
In his new historical novel, Lawrence Scott ushers us into the complex world of Elizabeth Dido D’Aviniere (née Belle), the mixed-race woman who lived in the household of her great-uncle, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, at Kenwood House, Hampstead in eighteenth century London. The intriguing title reflects Elizabeth’s precarious life and the threat to her children’s liberty.
When we meet Elizabeth, she is living in Pimlico, a married woman in a loving relationship and the mother of three boys. Justified anxieties about the real dangers her children face, reflections on her own childhood, and the deep loss she feels because of her mother’s absence, generate much of the energy of the novel.
Scott has said that he wrote Dangerous Freedom to redress the ‘romantic portrayals of Dido in art, film and literature’. He offers a countervailing, multi-faceted exploration of a character first painted by David Martin in 1778, and depicted latterly in the 2013 film, Belle, directed by Amma Asante.
Weaving fact and fiction in a powerful and subtle way, Scott portrays believable characters with clear voices and sophisticated yet accessible prose. We follow an absorbing third person narrative which at times diverts to first person, through the stream of letters written by Elizabeth to her mother, Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman. The longing for her mother is constant and palpable:
‘Elizabeth used to wonder if they – to whom her father had given her on arriving in England – had ever really understood her and her loss. For a while she grew up seeming so obliging and grateful as they saw it, gaining her Master’s highest respect and that of his relations and visitors, her whole mind and body were still filled with longing for her mother.’
Scott’s meticulous research is evident throughout the novel’s trajectory and this, coupled with his sharp sense of atmosphere and scene, engages the senses from start to finish. We learn more about Lord Mansfield through drawing room conversations at Kenwood House and understand the paradoxical nature of Elizabeth’s place in the family and, in particular, her relationship with him:
‘It puzzled her at times how he offered her so much freedom and yet she always knew she was not her own person. She was his. She belonged to him. Yet many of his books spoke of liberty. Her mother had told her enough times of the peculiar arrangement concerning the property that she was but it was much more her own realisation of that fact that puzzled and disturbed her.’
While this story is Elizabeth’s, it also belongs to Maria, who we meet primarily through letters and her daughter’s recollections of their times together before separation, when she tried to educate Elizabeth to be on her guard against the English and Christian hypocrisy:
‘Baptism doth not bestow freedom. You hear what I say? Don’t let him fool you. Like that other lie that because we breathing English air we go be free.’
Through moving passages which make for uncomfortable reading, we are privy to Maria’s fears, heartaches and rage. Scott dives beneath the fragmented historical knowledge of Elizabeth D’Aviniere’s life and comes up with a story which moves seamlessly back and forth through time and voice.
With its keen observations on the trauma of family loss, separation and racism, Lawrence Scott’s Dangerous Freedom hums with a quiet power and unembellished poignancy.