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Myths and Legends
Grace Darling: Victorian heroine

Backlash against sentimentality

In addition to newspaper articles, paintings and trinkets depicting Grace Darling in heroic mode, a number of books were written about the rescue and the family. The most notable in propagating the Grace Darling legend was 'Grace Darling, or the Maid of the Isles' by Jerrold Vernon in 1839. Described by Grace Darling biographer Mary Smedley as “sentimental fictions”, Vernon manages to rewrite Darling family history and the Farne Island’s geography. He is credited with giving birth to the legend ‘of the girl with windswept hair’. Later biographies, including that written by Eva Hope in 1875, accepted Vernon’s inventive tale as fact – transporting fiction into fact.

Beach
Inner Farne
© Ian Britton, freefoto.com
In reaction to these syrupy versions of the story, Grace’s sister Thomasina set out in 1880, more than 40 years after the wreck, to destroy the myth and publish the truth. The title of 'Grace Darling: Her True Story' from unpublished papers in the possession of her family anticipates the publicity machines of modern-day celebrities. In this defensive book, Thomasina criticises “inflated descriptions by the pen or exaggerated illustrations by the pencil which attribute to Grace Darling and her father impossible achievements”. She uses letters written by Grace to destroy the slushy myth that had developed around her sister. However, sales of the book were disappointing, far outstripped by the more sensational, if false, accounts of her sister’s life.

As Thomasina’s publication of her sister’s correspondence reveals, apart from the dramatic rescue, Grace was an obedient, otherwise unremarkable woman for whom fame was an unwelcome inconvenience in her life. Grace’s curt response to a letter asking whether she ever got bored of staying in the same place reveals her contentment with life in Longstone lighthouse: “I have seven apartments in the house to keep in a state fit to be inspected everyday by Gentlemen”. Perhaps, perversely, it was the very ordinariness of Grace’s life which proved the strongest catalyst for her sensational myth? In the absence of romantic or sensational elements, journalists and artists felt compelled to invent them, ensuring Grace’s story lived up to her reputation as a true Victorian heroine.


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