Wednesday 24 January 2018

Books: Sweeping history of a Guinness girl

Biography: Grace: The Remarkable Life of Grace Grattan Guinness, Michele Guinness, Hodder & Stoughton, hdbk, 386 pages

Progressive: Grace was, in many ways, well ahead of her time.
Progressive: Grace was, in many ways, well ahead of her time.
Author Michelle Guinness.
Grace by Michelle Guinness.

Anne Cunningham

Much still remains hidden in an otherwise engaging biography that was sparked by a chance find in the attic.

When the author Michele Guinness was clearing out her attic some years ago, she discovered a trunk full of notebooks, diaries, letters and journals belonging to her husband's grandmother, Grace Grattan Guinness. Such a find was destined to become a book, and here it is.

Like this book's author, Grace Grattan Guinness married into the Guinness family (the preacher wing, but all descended from the famous brewers), and also like the author, Grace gained an immense sense of vocation from her marriage. Michele Guinness, wife of Canon Peter Guinness, has written 21 books in total, most of them classified as "Christian" literature.

Unlike the author, who converted from Judaism to Christianity, Grace Hurditch was born into a family of middle-class Victorian evangelists who called themselves the Brethren; a congregation of born-again travelling preachers who whipped up religious fervour across the developed world in their heyday, from roughly the 1850's to the onset of the Great War.

Many of these preachers were Anglicans who came to abhor what they saw as the "Romification" of their church. Their solution was to go out and do what Christ did, some preachers relying almost solely on donations from wealthy benefactors to feed, clothe and educate their large families. But preaching was only part of it. Eager to demonstrate "by their deeds shall ye know them", revivalists set up foreign missions in the poorest corners of the globe, managed YMCA and Salvation Army hostels, and established schools and colleges throughout Great Britain.

Grace appears to have had a happy, busy childhood. Her father edited various popular religious magazines of the time, and the family was well-off enough to afford a maid. Summer holidays were spent travelling from one evangelical conference to another - huge gatherings of thousands who came to hear the word of God. Henry Grattan Guinness was one of the most popular preachers at such rallies, and well acquainted with Grace's parents. So when he asked for Grace's hand in marriage, although he was 40 years her senior, it seems her parents were as delighted as she was. She was 27. He was 67.

The newly-weds spent an extended honeymoon travelling the world, as Grattan Guinness spoke at revivalist Christian rallies throughout the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. And Grace accompanied him everywhere until the birth of her first son three years later. Motherhood may have cooled her jets, but fatherhood did nothing to stop her husband's travels. A second son born two years later further restricted Grace's wanderlust. Her descriptions of how she felt during her husband's long absences when she was - literally - left holding the babies, are among the more honest, less "garnished" passages in the book. And it is the garnishing that bothered me most about this biography.

The reader is bombarded with names, many of them important historical figures who were friends and acquaintances, but at times the story reads not so much like a biography than an eager, breathless, busy social diary.

This is a big book. It traces its subject's remarkable life from her birth to her death. And yet although I learned the facts, the dates, the people and the places, I was left feeling that I never learned much about the woman. Something intrinsic, something fundamental, the essence of Grace Guinness, seems - inexplicably - absent from the pages. The author writes in her introduction that Grace was "nonetheless reluctant to put her emotions on show" throughout her diaries, and so she (the author) has had to make an "educated guess {…} as to what she truly felt or thought".

This, I can accept. Grace Grattan Guinness was, after all, an Edwardian lady of the stiff-upper-lip variety. But I find the following sentence in the introduction far more telling: "Out of respect for Grace and her family, some things must remain hidden, because that is what she would have wanted." Indeed.

But it begs the question; would we know more about the woman herself if these "secrets" were revealed? How much of Grace's interior life has been muffled within whatever these "secrets" are, and is it possible at all to write an honest biography of anyone, while consciously withholding information important enough to kept secret more than 50 years after their death?

What is apparent, though, is that Grace became more spiritual and less zealous as time progressed. She was a very young widow after only seven years of marriage and was left to raise two boys, if not in penury, at least in financial uncertainty. She embarked on a variety of careers, from school matron to college bursar, boarding-house landlady to civil servant to nursing companion. She approved of the Marie Stopes foundation and privately supported her much-loved sister Ruth's decision to have an abortion, after bearing six children. Such thinking at the time was not only radical but revolutionary.

She also agreed wholeheartedly with the aims of the suffragettes, although it's not documented that she ever publicised such opinions.

Extraordinarily well-travelled for a woman of her time, Grace Guinness resided in Australia and Switzerland for some years and even in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, for a time. She lived through two world wars, worked tirelessly into old age, and maintained close and loving contact with family, including her husband's first family.

She was a feminist, a working single mother when such a thing was virtually unknown, an admirer of Mahatma Ghandi and a daily reader of the Book of Psalms. She remained fit and healthy and in full possession of her marbles until the last few months of her full and fascinating life.

The book's author, Guinness, is an eminently experienced writer, broadcaster and journalist who tells Grace Grattan Guinness's story with considerable elegance and lightness of touch. Grace is an interesting and engaging read.

Some years ago, the same author wrote a well-received history of the famous dynasty entitled The Guinness Spirit. But it's precisely that which I found missing in her latest book - Grace Guinness's spirit.

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