Why a post about Grace Darling? Along with Florence Nightingale, and Flora Macdonald who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape from mainland Scotland to the Isle of Skye (cue the Skye Boat Song) she must have been one of the best known and most anthologised heroines of my youth. It almost got boring. I’d be arguing with my brother about whether boys were better than girls, and he’d say, ‘Tell me some famous women, then! Go on –!’ and all I’d have would be Queen Elizabeth I, Flora Macdonald, Florence Nightingale and Grace Darling. Oh, and Elizabeth Fry. There must, I felt, be more – which is why The History Girls put out an anthology last year of stories about notable women from British history which does not include any of the figures I just named. ( It’s called Daughters of Time and is available here.)
So why Grace Darling? Here’s her story in brief. Born 24th November 1815 at the little town of Bamburgh on England’s north-east coast, Grace spent her youth in two lighthouses on the Farne Islands (five miles from land) where her father William was the keeper. In the early hours of the 7th September 1838, with a strong gale blowing, the 22 year-old Grace looked out of an upstairs window of the Longstone Lighthouse and saw the wreck of a paddlesteamer, the Forfarshire, which had struck the rocks of Big Harcar at about 4am and broken in two. Grace could see survivors clinging to the rocks. Deciding there was no way the mainland lifeboat could reach the wreck, she and her father set out in their open boat – a 21 foot, four-man coble – to row to the rescue over a mile of open, storm-swept sea. Once close to Big Harcar, William Darling leaped ashore to assist the survivors, leaving his daughter on her own to hold the heavy boat - built for four oarsman, remember - steady in the water, close but not too close to the rocks. Between them she and her father took off four men and a woman (a Mrs Dawson whose two children had tragically died during the night), and rowed them the mile back to the lighthouse, after which Grace’s father made a second trip with three of the rescued men and recovered another four survivors. Here's how it looked to the romantic imagination of Thomas Musgrave Joy (1812-1866), who also painted the portrait of Grace which heads this post.
When news of the rescue got out, Grace became the nation’s heroine overnight. More than a heroine: a celebrity. Artists besieged her island home, desperate to paint her. Gifts, letters and even marriage proposals poured in - to say nothing of money. Queen Victoria herself gave £50: over £700 in donations was raised. Grace's life changed forever but her fame brought no real good to this shy, naive lighthouse-keeper’s daughter – nor was it welcome. She found it hard to deal with unscrupulous people who wanted to cash in on her name - such as a circus owner who advertised in the Edinburgh papers that the proceeds of one of his shows would be ‘devoted to the benefit of Miss Grace Darling’ and who, sending her £20 cash as if ‘from the people of Edinburgh’, invited her to attend his circus in person to thank the city. It was a piece of shameless marketing, and fortunately Grace was warned by other friends to have nothing to do with it. Even the Duke of Northumberland, from his home at Bamburgh Castle, became involved in Grace’s story, appointing himself her ‘guardian’ and assigning trustees to help her handle the money flowing in. Though Grace was probably thankful for a buffer between her and the outside world, the Duke’s agent, Robert Smeddle, ‘fanned the flames of adulation’ , for example instructing her to sign hundreds of cards which he may well have sold for profit...
Just four years after her heroic deed Grace went down with tuberculosis - an illness quite possibly contracted from one of the many admiring visitors whom she had been obliged to meet. Her concerned friends moved her from place to place trying to find ‘better air’, and finally to the splendours of Alnwick Castle where even the attentions of the Duke of Northumberland’s private physician could not save her. “She found the relentless attention suffocating and thought everyone was finding fault with her." From the time she arrived at Alnwick, according to her sister Thomasin, ‘she went like the snow’ - a phrase vividly suggestive of the evanescent streaks of whiteness vanishing from the folds of the Northumberland hillsides in spring - and died in her father’s arms on the evening of Thursday 20th October,1842.
I took a boat trip out to the Farne Islands a couple of months ago and spent half-an-hour out on the Longstone: the boats land tourists there largely because of Grace's enduring fame. The thirty or so passengers dispersed across the rocks, and I wandered about, thinking of Grace. This remote, sternly beautiful spot was her home. From the shore, you can barely see the mainland - most of those dark streaks are long, low islets.
There's no vegetation at all upon Longstone Island. Only seaweed. If Grace or her father wanted fresh food they would have had to row to Brownstone Island, a mile or so away, where they kept a little vegetable garden tucked away low out of the wind, close to the stumpy little tower which had functioned briefly but unsuccessfully as the first lighthouse. You can just see it, peeping, in this picture.
At home on Longstone Island, the ground is nothing but grey rock fractured into green-fringed channels where the tide runs...
... or expanses of flat, purple-grey pebbles.
All these islands are part of a more-or-less horizontal layer of igneous rock called the Whin Sill, which stretches an arm out to sea from deep under the North Pennines. The lighthouse sits on its ridge close above the water; there's a concrete landing stage and a tiny bay.
But how clear the water is - and full of grey seals, whose dark curious heads bobbed up all around the boat as we landed.
The air is about as pure as air can be. It's hard to imagine a wilder, more isolated home - or one further away from any likelihood of infection. In the picture below, that second window in the white band is the one from which she looked out and saw the Forfarshire broken on the rocks.
Wandering on the far shore of Longstone Island, I became aware of an eerie sound in the air. Keening, moaning, huff-huff-huffing - hooting like children who make long quavering ghost noises - a group of seals were crying to one another, more than twenty of them, lying on a rocky ridge at the edge of the tide. Whooooo!
I thought how often Grace must have heard them sing. I wondered about her. I wondered who she really was. Courageous, clearly. Strong, used to the independence necessary for life on these islands, used to rowing and handling boats. Her father's trusted partner. Her portrait, while doubtless idealised, shows the sensible, quiet face of someone entirely capable within her own sphere. It wasn't her fault she was to be catapulted out of it. Her name can't have helped. Grace Darling! It seems a name made for a heroine - a Victorian newspaperman's dream. If Grace had been a boy, or if one of her brothers had, with identical bravery, rowed out to the Forfarshire with William Darling instead of she, would there have been all this outcry? Never: the men would have merited perhaps a reward of a couple of guineas and a paragraph in the local papers - an outcome Grace would probably have greatly preferred. Instead she was forced into the public eye and idolised and feted, the puppet of fortune, the unwilling recipient of gifts and admiration which had to be acknowledged lest a capricious public turn on her and proclaim her ungrateful. A lighthouse keeper's daughter and a heroine: a kind of freak: an uneasy something both more than and less than a lady. It was an impossible role.
Then as now, publicity has a tendency to kill the thing it loves. And too often it loves only for a little while. Build 'em up and kick 'em down: unless they die young, after which it's little consolation to be loved forever. If she'd never become famous, the healthy young woman strong enough to row a four-man boat for two freezing, salt-soaked miles through raging stormy water might well have lived for fifty more years. Instead she lasted a meagre four, and went like the snow.
Several portraits and many more fascinating details about Grace Darling can be found at the Grace Darling website: http://www.gracedarling.co.uk/Paintings.html