- Grace Darling: Victorian Heroine, and: 'England's Darling': The Victorian Cult of Alfred the Great
In addition to the word 'Darling' appearing in the titles of both, these two books share many commonalities: both are studies of the transmission of constructed memory in the nineteenth century, one of a distant historical figure, Alfred the Great, about whom real knowledge was lacking; the other about a Victorian heroine, Grace Darling, whose reputation was defined by a single courageous deed. They focus on how specific values and characteristics (often entirely imagined) were vested in these figures so that they might be emulated by others and passed on to future generations. Both are modest and sagely circumspect in their aim to indicate the importance of their subjects to national culture: they contain no overly-grandiose claims that their subjects defined English or British national identity in the Victorian period, for example. They ask why were these figures raised to the status of hero/heroine and why did others put emotional investment in their actions and character? But while similar in aims and attitude, the two books also highlight different, though clearly overlapping, understandings of how the past has been given meaning and transmitted to subsequent generations. This difference goes beyond the obvious fact that Hugh Cunningham's Grace Darling lived during the Victorian era and was known by contemporaries whereas [End Page 138] Joanne Parker's Alfred the Great was nine hundred years dead by the time the Victorians discovered his usefulness as a didactic icon. For while these two very good studies both carry with them the current concerns of the so-called 'memory boom'1 they provide us with two different models of how to study the construction and veneration of heroic figures in the Victorian period.
The crux of Cunningham's tale is the exemplary deed that defined Grace Darling's short life and subsequent remembrance: the act of rowing-out with her father, the keeper of the Outer Farne Isle lighthouse, to a stricken ship, the Forfarshire, amidst a fierce storm in the early morning of 8 September 1838 and thereby helping rescue some nine survivors from the wreck. From this single two-hour event the reputation and legacy of Grace derived. Cunningham spends ample time providing the context for the deed: short histories of British lighthouses, of steamships, of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and of what can be ascertained of the Darling family. The rest of the book charts the remarkable prominence Grace's actions received, at first amongst Northumberland and then national elite circles, and later within British culture generally. Initially, sense was made of Grace's deed by placing it within Romantic fictionalised contexts. Then Grace's character was increasingly trumpeted as indicative of admirable British qualities. Later in the nineteenth century, she was increasingly appropriated as a role model for the young – heroic, yes, but also humble and knowing of her place within the class and gender hierarchy. Others tried to depict her as a feminist pioneer. Grace was used as an icon of Britishness in the first half of the twentieth century, but her character and deed came to be questioned in the 1960s with the publication of a number of psychologically probing and anti-heroic historical accounts. From the late 1960s through until the mid 1980s, Cunningham suggests there was a Graceless generation for whom Darling's name meant little or nothing, at least outside of Northumberland. The book finishes with the recent revival of Grace's presence in the British school curriculum, and some thoughts on the inherent instability of her image over time.
Elucidating how particularly influential readings of the events coloured subsequent accounts, Cunningham details the planning of monuments, museums and commemorations, the tortured story of the preservation of her coble (rowboat), and grand schemes for planting memorial...