Belle (2013), directed by Amma Asante

belle_xlgGrowing up in the 50s and 60s, dating for marriage was a very straightforward process. You met, dated for several months, and then came the moment of truth. Do you propose marriage or move on to dating someone else?

Nowadays, the dating landscape is different, especially in very religious Orthodox Jewish circles. I have granddaughters who live in Orthodox communities in America; they tell me that they have to prepare resumes that are submitted to matchmakers, who then work on their behalf to find suitable matches. I do not know if the system works, but it is very different from my own experience many years ago.

Although good character is still the key factor in determining the suitability of a match, finances also play a role. Will the prospective parents of the groom and bride be able to support the couple for a few years while the boy continues his Torah studies before entering the work force and will the parents help with buying a home as the couple morphs into a family with children?

Arranged marriage figures prominently in Belle, the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, born in 1761, who was the natural daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman in the West Indies, and Captain John Lindsay, a British Royal Navy officer. When Belle’s mother dies, Captain Lindsay takes her to England in 1765 to live with his uncle William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice of England. Lord and Lady Mansfield raise Belle as a free gentlewoman.

As a mixed-race child in a white household, her marriage prospects are dim. That changes when Belle’s father dies and leaves her an inheritance of 2000 pounds a year. Suitors do not run to her door, but marriage now becomes possible. In truth, Belle is no fool and is not interested in marriage for its own sake. She understands that she has the money to remain independent. But a vicar’s son and apprentice to the profession of law, John Davinier, captures her attention with his sincerity and devotion to worthy causes.

Tension arises between Lord Mansfield and Davinier when Davinier pressures him to make a controversial ruling that would make moral sense but would put the nation at great economic risk. Belle becomes aware of the rift and works behind the scenes to help Davinier. She does this is spite of being torn between affection for Davinier and loyalty to her guardian Lord Mansfield. The story, a gripping footnote to black history in England, is the background for Belle’s efforts to marry for love rather than for financial convenience.

Judaism has much to say about arranged marriages. To be a matchmaker is a good thing, and parents were the primary matchmakers throughout much of Jewish history. To find the right marriage partner is God’s work, but parents were God’s surrogates in the quest for a suitable marriage mate.

The patriarchs of the Jewish people took a major role in finding the appropriate wife for their child. The Bible recounts in detail how Abraham appointed his trusted servant Eliezer with finding a spouse for Isaac. The focus was on the potential mate’s spiritual qualities and good character. Being wealthy was not one of the criteria they sought.

Belle provides a fascinating look at the marriage market in the eighteenth century. Considerations of wealth and political position were uppermost in the minds of parents looking to move up socially through the marriage of a daughter to a person of rank. However, sensitive parents were not immune to the entreaties of children who wanted to marry people of good character rather than people of prestige and economic power. Belle and Lord Murray ultimately see eye to eye on this most important of matters.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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