Discovering Grace - Michele Guinness
This month we spoke to Michele Guinness about her latest book looking at the life of Grace Grattan Guinness.
Michele is also the author behind the bestselling fiction title 'Archbishop' exploring the role of women in the church through the appointment of a female Archbishop of Canterbury (click here to read our interview with Michele from February 2014 looking at the journey behind that book)
One year on, in a departure from her much-loved fictional writings, comes 'Grace'.
When Michele Guinness was clearing out her attic in preparation to move house she stumbled upon a collection of letters and journals about her husband’s Grandmother, Grace Grattan Guinness. The story of her unconventional life in Victorian Britain fascinated Michelle and she knew this was a story that had to be told.
Here's our Q&A with Michele...
What led you to write this wonderful story of an amazing woman?
Many years ago, knowing of my interest in the Guinnesses – especially the missionary variety – my father-in-law happened to say he had a trunk full of his mother’s diaries and journals up in his rooftop study – some over a hundred years old. He had always been more interested in his father, Henry Grattan Guinness, who was the famous evangelist of the 1854-6 revival, and died at the age of 74, when he was only two. He hadn’t bothered to look and see what was there. I must say I wasn’t much better – stuck the lot up in the loft for one of those rainy days that never came. Until I retired. And when I began to read them I was utterly captivated. They were enchanting. I loved her unselfconscious honesty. She was such a rebel, an early feminist, and what surprised me most, she was laugh-out-loud funny.
Did you immediately recognise the significance of what you discovered in the attic – the letters, diaries etc?
I didn’t know that the film “Suffragette” would come out at almost the same time as the book – reviving an interest in the history of women; that was a happy fluke! But I did think her story ought to be told. She was a remarkable woman, a rebel against the expectations put upon her (as I was as a Jewish daughter); by the confines of her strict but loving Brethren childhood; in marrying a famous preacher forty years her senior and working to raise her two boys as a single mother – a supporter of feminism, suffrage and birth control. And she was such an entertaining commentator on her times – living through five monarchs, two world wars, the introduction of motor transport, electricity, the telephone, and antibiotics.
The choices for women in the 19th Century were much more limited than today. The character of Grace Guinness must have been quite remarkable to have pushed against this.
Married women, and especially mothers, were not allowed to work until the late 1930s. She and her younger sister, Ruth, (whose story I tell in tandem) were both extraordinary characters – Ruth a CMS (Church Mission Society) missionary, travelling thousands of miles on elephant tracks by bicycle; the first woman to climb the Mountains of the Moon (pregnant at the time); who would have been the second female MP in the country, could she afford it, and in desperate poverty in World War One, had to decide whether to have an abortion. Grace herself was left almost penniless and went from businesswoman to companion, always living in other people’s properties. Yet the sisters never grumbled about their lot. Grace read The Times every day and could comment eruditely and humorously on everything around her.
Do you think there is still a temptation for parents to place more restrictions and particular expectations on daughters than sons?
I think the expectations for Christian young men were enormous in terms of the sort of ministry they were supposed to have. Imagine being expected to live up to a Spurgeon, or a Grattan Guinness, who moved crowds of thousands? It was different for daughters – they were expected to marry the right man, but if they didn’t, Church and missionary work was opening up a new independence and opportunity for travel – which Grace’s eldest sister, Bee, discovered. Florence Nightingale, Catherine Booth and Josephine Butler certainly gave Christian women a new sense of adventure, probably before their non-faith counterparts.
What significance can be drawn to the reader today from the life of Grace Guinness?
In many ways Grace was a very ordinary woman, too – at times vulnerable, frustrated, frightened, lonely – like most of us in fact. Not everyone marries a man forty years their senior, but she followed her heart, fielded the criticisms, and when widowhood came so soon, made up her mind to cope for her two boys sake. It can’t have been easy to live through so many climactic times, to be so dependent on her own resources, and to see her beloved children go abroad and leave her, but she learnt to adapt to whatever life threw at her with humour and thankfulness.
What do you hope the reader takes away with them from Grace?
I hope first and foremost that they’ll just enjoy the refreshment of being drawn into a fascinating life in another time. But also see that history can teach us – that it is possible to emerge from the confines of the expectations people put upon us stronger, more whole and with our faith not only intact, but different and deeper as it sustains us, as it did her, through the many upheavals of her long life.
You can order Grace for just £14.99 (RRP £18.99)
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Join date : 2015-02-17
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