“Is there in the whole field of history, or of fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment with this?” – The Times, September 19, 1838
In a tired haze, I downloaded the ebook of The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel Gaynor from my public library. I was about half way into a 2am nursing session with my newborn daughter and I wanted to start reading something I hadn’t heard of. The cover and title of this book caught my eye – and I’m glad it did.
It caught my eye because as a Michigander who also resided in California for a couple of years, I’ve always lived five to 30 minutes from a large body of water: Lake Michigan or the Pacific Ocean. As long as I can remember I’ve had an interest in water, the beach, coastal towns, marine biology, and all things maritime, including lighthouses. I honestly don’t think I could live further from a large body of water. It would feel wrong.
The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter is a work of historical fiction. It introduced me to Grace Darling and a few other women lighthouse keepers from the past, such as “the American Grace Darling,” Ida Lewis. Grace helped her parents keep the Longstone Lighthouse on one of the Farne Islands (a group of islands off the coast of England) in the 1800s.
While women were not allowed to be lighthouse keeper’s in England at the time, Grace helped her father regularly in his official duties. Not surprising to the 21st century reader, Grace was quite capable of keeping the lighthouse despite her gender. To the 19th century citizen, this simple fact was hard to comprehend.
So when a 23-year-old Grace spotted the Forfarshire wreck and helped her father rescue nine survivors amidst a raging storm, the world was astonished. Almost overnight Grace became famous. Her heroism inspired poems, ballads, and plays, as well as many grandiose news stories and statements about Grace, such as this from The Times:
“Is there in the whole field of history, or of fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment with this?”
The public’s response shows how little it expected from women, and possibly an underlying hope that women could do and be more than society was currently prescribing. For while Grace’s act truly was heroic, she certainly was not, nor would remain, the only woman to do a heroic deed.
In the novel, an American character named Matilda is reading through some literature found in an old chest about brave women lighthouse keeper’s of the past.
“For women whose lives were expected to remain as rigid and tightly laced as the corsets that stole their breath from their lungs, I’m surprised to learn how readily they stepped beyond the conventions of society and took on the jobs their fathers and husbands had once done.” – Matilda in The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel Gaynor
This, and the entire novel, inspired me to do some of my own research on women lighthouse keeper’s of the Great Lakes. Happily, I found the Coast Guard blog post Illuminating the Way: Women Lighthouse Keepers of the Great Lakes.
“[In 1832] women started making history on the Great Lakes by becoming federal-employed lighthouse keepers…Many years before women had the ability to vote in the United States, these female lighthouse keepers not only had federally appointed jobs, but they received equal pay.” – Illuminating the Way post by by PA3 L. Laughlin
The post also has some photos, log book entries, and a list of women’s names who served as lighthouse keeper’s on the Great Lakes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Check it out!
I find it fascinating and inspiring to learn about women doing what was once the unexpected. Historical fiction is such a fun way to be introduced to these stories.
Are you inspired to learn more about women lighthouse keepers? Have you been inspired by women in another historical fiction novel? Let me know in the comments below!