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Daughter and wife in the chapel set

by
23 September 2016

But there is more to the subject of this life, says Michael Wheeler

© michelle guinness

Delightful: Grace Grattan Guinness

Delightful: Grace Grattan Guinness

Grace: The remarkable life of Grace Grattan Guinness
Michele Guinness
Hodder & Stoughton £18.99
(978-1-444-75339-4)
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

 

 

WHAT does a writer do when stumbling across a trunk full of papers — diaries, journals, letters — relating to the life of her clerical husband’s great-grandmother, whose story should be told, but whose documents would not provide enough evidence for a straight biography?

Michele Guinness’s solution is a form of “faction”, in this instance fictional autobiography that unifies heterogeneous documentary material. Although it is possible to see the joins from time to time, especially when certain edited highlights stand out from the narrative, and in spite of a few misjudgments of the kind of phraseology which Grace would have used at different stages of her life, the strategy works, and the story is a fascinating one.

Part One, “The Memoirs 1858-1903”, takes us from the “Second Birth” of her parents in the great religious revival of the 1850s to the end of Grace’s single life. Although her father, Charles Russell Hurditch, was a member of the Plymouth Brethren, he was of the “Open” variety, and in fact became suspect for his ecumenism in the course of a busy life of preaching and home mission. Ritualism and Roman Catholicism, however, like evolution and biblical criticism, remained beyond the pale.

Grace and her numerous siblings enjoyed many aspects of their upbringing, especially the annual trip to the Keswick Convention. This part of the book gives vivid insight into Grace’s family history and her participation in what was virtually a family business of evangelism. “Belonging to one large, happy family meant that relations amongst us evangelicals were generally affectionate, and we girls, more than most, were not afraid to be demonstrative of our feelings.” Boisterous, energetic, rebellious, and as independent as her age and background would permit, Grace was clearly a delightful young woman.

By the end of Victoria’s reign, all the Hurditch children had left the Brethren and followed a wide variety of spiritual paths. Grace’s own “awakening” came at last when she met and immediately married a man 40 years older than herself, the famous preacher and author Dr Henry Gratton Guinness, now a 68-year-old widower. The story of this marriage, happy, unconventional and perforce brief, is told in Part Two, “Letters, 1903-10”.

Guinness was 70 when Grace gave birth to their first child in Australia (her honeymoon lasted five years, as Henry was swept along with a worldwide mission), but she ignored his being mistaken for her father or even grandfather.

Part III, “Diaries 1910-63”, covers life after Henry, and reveals how a woman whose whole life had been caught up in the world of Evangelical missions had surprisingly liberal views. Her positive response to Marie Stopes, for example, and the campaign for birth control to be available to women form the basis of a long extract from the book which has appeared in the Church Times (Features, 15 April 2016).

Grace provides an unusual and engaging route into women’s history and writing, and into Evangelicalism, in late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

 

Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton, and Chairman of Gladstone’s Library.

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