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18 June 2014
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Myths and Legends
Grace Darling: Victorian heroine

Development of the myth

News of the sea-borne, dramatic rescue was first picked up by the local papers in Northumberland, in which faulty boilers rather than Grace’s heroism played the starring role. Amidst the several pages devoted to the wreck in the Warder of Berwick-on-Tweed, the heroism of “two individuals” is praised. Even in these first accounts, myth begins to impinge upon reality. According to the Warder, Grace “urged her father to go off in the boat at all risks”. Grace easily fulfilled the role of the courageous, selfless heroine by her actions alone, however imaginative journalists, eager to create the most sensational copy, began to fill in the gaps with sentimental fabrications.

Grace looking straight ahead
Grace Darling, Henry Perlee Parker, 1838
© Courtesy of RNLI
For example “the cries of the sufferers on the remaining part of the wreck were heard during the night by the female [Grace] who immediately awoke her father”. As Grace’s sister Thomasina pointed out some years later, for Grace to have heard the cries over the din of a gale-force wind was heroic in itself. Journalists also romanticised the story: the Newcastle Chronicle claimed that, “One of the old seamen was moved to tears when he saw a young female of slender appearance periling her life for their preservation”.

Grace’s story was ideally suited to sentimentality and romance: the remote, beautiful location of the Farne Islands, the power and terror of the sea, her age and maidenhood, her comely appearance and even her name – fiction could not have conjured up a more angelic character. Grace’s strongest qualification for exoneration as the ideal Victorian woman was her social position: a loyal, devoted daughter content and fulfilled in her role as a housekeeper. In Victorian England, domesticity was the women’s sphere, as opposed to the male spheres of commerce, business and trade. It was the women’s task to create a welcoming, orderly home environment for the men of the household.

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