North West Reads Book 13: Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg
Grace and Mary is inspired by the lives of Melvyn Bragg’s mother and grandmother.
John’s cousins were well meaning and had not wanted to worry him. As John had busy life in London, they decided not to mention the changes exhibited by his mother, Mary. On his visits to Wigton, the Cumbrian town where he had grown up, Mary’s occasional lapses of memory had not unduly worried him. He put this down to his mother getting on in years. It took an alarming incident, meeting his mother dishevelled and with make-up smeared across her face in the streets of Wigton, for him to realise that she was succumbing to dementia. He was horrified when she tried to walk past him as she had failed to recognise him.
Mary had been ‘just about managing’ and his cousins assured John that they had been keeping an eye on her, but John fears for what could have happened to her. He began to visit more frequently. Then, during one of his visits, she collapses in church and an ambulance has to be called. A short while later she breaks her leg in a fall. Home care is not suitable for her needs, so John arranges for her to enter a nursing home. John is an only child, his father had died some years earlier, so he is the primary carer for his mother. Feelings of helplessness, of failure and guilt plague John. He was unable to help his mother when she collapsed. He could take her to live in his home in London, but this would take her from the area she had lived in all her life, from the people and places she knew which could cause great distress for someone with her illness; besides this, he and his wife led full lives, their children were grown up and leading their own lives, thus she would be living in an empty house in a city she barely knew.
Then there was the guilt at the lies. ‘When am I going home?’, ‘When your well enough’, but John knows that she will never be well enough and, as for the house, it has now been sold. Though Mary’s memory is going she is still sharp enough to wonder if John is telling her the truth. She never accuses him of lying but a sharp look is enough for him to feel that childhood panic that may have shown up the lie back then. He has learned how to lie more effectively since then.
The deterioration of his mother’s memory raises questions for John about what and who we are, that we are not merely physical mechanisms powered by chemical reactions. He wants there to be a soul or spirit, something that would contain all the things that makes Mary the person she is, her personality, thoughts, feelings, loves, sorrows, fears; that ‘something’ that remains when the physical form disappears. The God he had been brought up to believe in and worship was not the answer, as he had reasoned away this God in his teens. John takes comfort from the writings of the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume who argued that reason was secondary to, and derived from, our experiences of the world, of memories, sensations, and emotions. John encourages Mary to recall the dances they attended when he was a child, to reminisce about Wigton characters and the regular events and traditions of the town. He takes her out in his car as much as possible to places she knew when young.
The nursing home was a good one, based in Silloth near to the Cumbrian coast and ten miles from Wigton. It was staffed by locals which helped his mother settle, even if she did not accept that she would be there for the remainder of her life. John continues to make his regular, but exhausting, round trips from London to Silloth. Sometimes his mother knows him, sometimes she doesn’t. He has not given up hope that he can help her and prompts her memories of the past through conversation, songs and by using books of old photographs. John hopes that this could retain or even reverse Mary’s memory loss. However, Mary’s early life was complicated, so he risks memories of lies, half-truths and obfuscations emerging alongside the happier ones. She asks after her mother, her real mother, Grace. John knows that this will prove a tricky subject to raise as it will bring up upsetting memories for Mary, marked by shame, stigma and confusion.
Grace, John’s grandmother, was a woman he met as a child during stiff, formal visits at his home. She had been born towards the end of Queen Victoria’s reign to a farming family. Her mother, Ruth, died not long after giving birth to her and so her maternal grandparents, Wilson and Sarah Carrick, agreed to take in Grace and her sister Belle while their father sought work elsewhere. Wilson adored Grace but soon became aware of her quick intelligence and independence of mind; lovely as she was, she needed to be watched.
Grace excelled at school and her teacher recommended that she should apply to become an assistant to her. Unfortunately, Grace’s talents aroused resentment and jealousy from some of the other children. Her sister Belle, deemed ‘slow’ at a time when, as John notes, there was little understanding of the causes of learning difficulties, was targeted for abuse. None of them would dare challenge Grace herself. But Grace became aware of the abuse and waded in violently to defend Belle. In the aftermath of this incident, it is not Grace’s actions in defending her sister that disturbs her teacher, but her refusal to meet an apology from the other children with an apology in return. Grace will not apologise as she has done nothing wrong by standing up to bullies and protecting her vulnerable sister, and she will not back down on principle. This may have been acceptable for a boy to do, but not a girl. The Assistant Teacher offer gets withdrawn, and Grace leaves school and has to find her own way in the world.
Her world, this farming community with its traditions and deeply rooted religious observance, is restrictive and suffocating for her. Her grandparents are Primitive Methodists, they strictly observe the Sabbath and never touch alcohol. At this time, before the upheavals of the First World War, people did not tend to travel far unless through necessity to find work or escape poverty. Grace had never travelled outside Cumbria, yet she knew she wanted to have at least some of her life away from here. Her restlessness and frustrations were partly alleviated by her conversations with the local minister, Mr Walker, with whom she could discuss books, ideas and world events. Had Grace been born a little later in the century she could have found an outlet for her intellect. Instead, she lives the sort of life expected of her by her community and family; she becomes engaged to Frank, commonly regarded as a ‘good man’, solid, dependable, but not very exciting.
They are unable to marry right away as they have to build up their savings first. Then the War breaks out and Grace feels that this is her chance to do something challenging by contributing to the war effort. Frank, as a farmer, is in a reserved occupation and so is not required to join up. Grace seizes the opportunity to become a volunteer nurse, working at Prospects, a large house owned by a prominent local landholding family. It is the place where Grace’s sharp mind combined with her unworldliness, having never travelled far from home, leads to her life unravelling.
One of the patients, Alan, appears to be everything that Frank isn’t. In the flush of romantic love Grace is wooed by this charming young soldier who recites Shakespeare’s sonnets (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’), professes his love and tells her that he becomes upset and distressed when she is not near. A throwaway comment about them being married is as good as a proposal to Grace. She breaks her engagement to Frank, who takes this stoically. Her grandparents are apprehensive at the speed of her new relationship with Alan. These worries and concerns are realised when Grace finds herself pregnant and is informed by Alan’s parents that he cannot be contacted.
Grace had grown up in a sparsely populated and relatively isolated area of England where there were only small degrees of separation, people knew the business of other members of their community. So, when Grace breaks up with Frank, she is straight with him about the ending of their engagement and the reason why. It was never going to remain a secret. It is only when she visits Alan’s home city of Birmingham that Grace appreciates the anonymity and freedom that being one person in a large, populated place allows; she finds it almost intoxicating. It’s the freedom that can allow you to get away with things, as Alan knew full well.
Women who gave birth outside wedlock were treated harshly by society. It is only in recent times that attitudes have changed. Mary was sent to live in Wigton, placed in the care of a local woman, Mrs Johnston, who brought her up as her own. Grace goes to work in Grasmere, sends money back for Mary’s keep and hopes, one day, to be reunited with her. Conspiracies of silence revolved around illegitimacy. Nobody enlightens Mary about her real family situation. Authorities preferred to separate mothers and children for fear that the ‘bad’ mother may adversely influence their child. Some in Grace’s community smugly condemned her, and believed her early precociousness was a portend to her becoming a ‘fallen woman’. Although Wilson regards Alan as a scoundrel who had ‘done the dirty’ on Grace, he never speaks to her again and she is banished from the farm. Christian forgiveness did not extend to the sort of sin Grace had committed.
To Mary, Grace is not her mother but a woman who visits her home and leaves her gifts. The visits are as stilted as the future ones experienced by John. She only becomes aware of her status, and her real relationship to Grace, when another child calls her a ‘bastard’, a word she knows is bad and shameful, but is not sure why. She carried the ‘stigma’ of her illegitimacy through childhood, wondering why she did not grow up with her mother. However, she managed to put this behind her with her marriage and birth of her son, but the damage caused by the social norms and attitudes of the times never fully left her. As Mary steadily declines as she is affected by course of the disease, John reflects on his mother’s and grandmother’s lives, and the secrets that lay hidden that prevented him from really knowing them.
Melvyn Bragg notes in his memoir, Back in the Day, that he was brought up in a house of lies, but the lies were meant to be kind. However, as he quite rightly notes, children can sense lies about matters that adults are privy to, and they can still leave scars long after the main hurt has passed. The story of Grace and Mary is not a unique one; many families have odd gaps in their history or have maintained silences about relatives whose existence only finally comes to light through research by other family members. Those who were affected in the past by the ‘horror’ of illegitimacy are now looked upon with compassion; the only ‘horror’ expressed is that they were treated in such a manner in the first place.
Written by Janet - Library Assistant
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