Sarah Grand (1854-1943) was born Frances Elizabeth Bellenden Clarke in Donaghdee, County Down, Ireland, where her father was stationed as a naval lieutenant. After his death in 1861, the young Frances and her four siblings were taken by their mother to live near relatives in Yorkshire. With little money to go round, Frances was regularly forced to go without in order that her brothers might be raised as gentlemen, an experience recalled with bitterness in The Beth Book. Desperate for an education, she was disappointed by the reality of school, attending institutions unable to accommodate her lively intellect and fiery spirit. Teachers were troubled by her vocal opposition to the Contagious Diseases Acts and were keen to absolve themselves of any responsibility for such a strong-minded young woman.
Like many women, Frances escaped an unhappy childhood through the expedient of an early marriage. Her husband, Surgeon-Major David Chambers McFall was a thirty-nine-year-old widower with two sons, one of them only six years younger than the bride. Although marriage gave Frances the opportunity to travel the world, as an institution it was no less circumscribed than school. Frances was unhappy with her husband’s behaviour and also objected to his work at on of the infamous lock hospitals, used to confine prostitutes suspected of carrying venereal disease.
In 1888, Frances privately and anonymously published her first novel, Ideala, the modest profits of which enabled her to leave her husband and young son. Moving to London to embark upon a literary career, Frances reinvented herself as “Madame Sarah Grand”, marking a symbolic moment of self-empowerment.
Grand’s first literary success was with The Heavenly Twins in 1893. It was reprinted six times in its first year and went on to sell over 20,000 copies. Although she continued writing fiction for the next twenty years, Grand never matched the success of this, her most famous work. Grand’s largely autobiographical novel The Beth Book (1897) describes her childhood and adolescence, also revealing aspects of her marriage to McFall.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, Grand lectured throughout England and the United States, promoting women’s suffrage, rational dress, and the health benefits of cycling. She was a member of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League and vice-president of the Women’s Suffrage Society. In Tunbridge Wells, where she lived with her stepson, Haldane McFall, Grand became president of the local branches of the National Council of Women and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
In 1920 Grand moved to Bath, serving as the city’s mayoress from 1922-29. By this time, her notoriety as a writer had faded, with one newspaper announcing excitedly that “Mrs Sarah Bernhardt is to be Mayoress next year”. When her home was bombed in 1942, Grand was persuaded to move to Calne in Wiltshire, where she died the following year, a month before her 89th birthday. Her son Archie outlived her by only a year, dying in a London air raid.
In her obituary, The Times concluded that Grand “widened the field of English fiction by freeing subject and treatment.” For this reason, she continues to be read to this day, attracting considerable critical attention.