Sarah Anne Johnson

Grace Darling Inspires a Look at Gender in 1843 August 8, 2014

grace darlingI was wandering around the Highland House Museum in Truro, MA when I came across this image of Grace Darling, a young lightkeeper’s daughter who became famous when she rowed into a storm to rescue a shipwrecked sailor.

I was transfixed.

I grew up on Cape Cod sailing and spending a lot of time on the water, yet we had no female heroes. No women ship captains, or lightkeeper’s or merchant runners. Now, here was evidence of an actual heroine at sea. The image captured my imagination; the treacherous waves, the combination of Grace’s daring and her femininity intrigued me.

I researched Grace Darling and came across similar stories of women rowing into the waves to save shipwrecked sailors. There was a phenomenon of sorts. When a young woman was in a position where she had to take charge of a lighthouse-say her father or her husband was the light keeper and they became indisposed-she often took to the waves, whereby her male counterpart tended to stay ashore to tend the lighthouse.

Many believed that women were driven into the waves by a sense of empathy, while men felt a keep responsibility to keep the lights going at all costs. These different reactions that men and women had in a storm drew me into exploring women’s maritime history. When I discovered women pirates, I was began to see how the roles of women at sea could be explored in the context of a novel. I began to push the edges of what these early constructs meant and explore to the way we see gender in its many configurations.

I hope that the characters in The Lightkeeper’s Wife will help readers think about gender and how we define ourselves and others in the context of our own lives. Please send questions. I love to hear from visitors.


Grace Darling Inspires a Look at Gender in 1843

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Sarah Anne Johnson

Sarah is the author of The Lightkeeper’s Wife (Sourcebooks), The Very Telling, The Art of the Author Interview, and Conversations with American Women Writers, all published by the University Press of New England. Her interviews appear in The Writer’s Chronicle, Glimmertrain Stories, Provincetown Arts, and The Writer where she is a contributing editor. Her fiction has appeared in Other Voices, and she is the recipient of residencies in fiction from Jentel Artists’ Residency Program and Vermont Studio Center. She has taught the Art of the Author Interview Workshop at Bennington College Writing Seminars MFA Program, Leseley University MFA Program, and at literary conferences.

Grace Darling Inspires a Look at Gender in 1843 August 8, 2014