by Janet Whitney
[Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $3.50]
IT is hard to write the biography of a really good person — perhaps one of the hardest tasks in the world of letters. There is the official, funeral-oration sort of thing, with its wilting wreaths laid at the foot of a statue; there is also the debunking variety, where the point to be proved is that the good person really was n’t so good after all. The latter is more fun for the reader than the former, but it still begs the question. We do not all of us do good merely because we are prigs and hypocrites— and yet there is nothing drearier than being told firmly, ‘Here is a noble character! Stand and admire!’
In this biography of Elizabeth Fry, perhaps one of the greatest figures ever produced by the Society of Friends, Mrs. Whitney has very skillfully avoided both pitfalls. She has written the life of a great woman whose goodness was an essential part of her greatness. And she has done it so clearly, delightfully, and understandingly that not only Elizabeth herself but her times and the people around her come to vivid life on the page.
It is the full portrait of a remarkable and most human soul. For Elizabeth Fry did not start out with any intention of reforming the world or becoming a saint. She was one of the merry scarlet-cloaked Gurney sisters of Earlham — a little more lonely and self-critical, perhaps, than her sisters, as one child is apt to be in a large family, but belonging to the ‘gay’ Quakers rather than the ‘plain’ ones and with a young rebellion against pious stuffiness. Then something happened to her — something very genuine. What it was Mrs. Whitney very clearly shows —and it is not the least admirable part of her narrative that she can make the growth of religious feeling in a young girl’s mind as fascinating as any drums and conquests.
From a ‘gay’ Friend, Elizabeth gradually became a ‘plain’ one — not quite ‘plain’ enough at first for the family into which she married; they still thought her ‘gay ’ in the beginning. A pretty, modest young Quakeress, with a lovely voice, married at twenty to a solid if slightly nubbly young banker —are saints to be made of such stuff? Yet, before her life closed she was to walk into the stinking hell of the woman’s side of Newgate Prison and change it utterly. She was to visit, for years, every convict ship that left the shores of England, and bring not only hope but sense aud decent clothing and the beginnings of self-respect to the unhappy women sent to the penal colonies. By example, by practicality, by common sense, courage, aud what can only be called the quality of saintliness, she was to institute reforms that spread all over the civilized world and are not ended yet.
And, unlike Florence Nightingale, she did not go single to her task. She was a wife and the mother of eleven children. She was also, for many years, the mistress of a large establishment. She was afraid that she did not run the latter with great efficiency, but it ran. Very frequently family calls superseded everything else
— even the calls of fairly distant relatives who appreciated her skill at nursing. And, throughout her life, there was nothing of the self-important bustle of the would-be reformer about her. She went as directly to her ends as she walked into the woman’s side of Newgate before the amazed eyes of the turnkeys. Here was something to do — therefore it should be done.
And it is one of Mrs. Whitney’s triumphs in this biography that she has made us feel the greatness of Elizabeth Fry without once losing touch with her humanity. The young girl bored by long meetings; the young wife homesick for Earlham and having her own difficulties with her new in-laws; the distinguished woman wincing at every censure passed upon her by the more straitlaced Friends — and yet she would have the King of Prussia to lunch at her house and ‘our meal was handsome, not extravagant, but fit for a king’; the saint, dying nobly and yet in the fear of death; ‘How I feel for the poor when very ill; in a state like my own for instance; when good ladies go to see them. Religious truths so strongly brought forward, often injudiciously’ — all are there. We never lose sight of Betsy Gurney in Elizabeth Fry. And the portrait of Joseph Fry — by no means a simple one to draw — is done with as loving a care. The whole Fry-Gurney connection live and breathe in these pages. And with them lives and shines the changing age they were part of — and the vital spark of that religion which Elizabeth knew.
I hope Mrs. Whitney will continue in the field of biography — for there is a delicate sureness of touch about her work that is as hard to imitate as it is rare.