Brave Betsy, the Heroine on Your Five Pound Note; BIOGRAPHY

Daily Mail (London), February 26, 2016 | Go to article overview

Brave Betsy, the Heroine on Your Five Pound Note; BIOGRAPHY


Byline: HELEN BROWN

WHILE IT IS YET DAY

by Averil Opperman

(Orphans Publishing PS16.99)

KIND and careworn beneath her modest Quaker cap, the wise old eyes of Elizabeth Fry have gazed out from our five pound notes for a decade now.

This year she will be replaced by Churchill, and in the years I've been folding her face into my purse I'm ashamed to admit all I knew about her was that shedid something worthy on prison reform.

Luckily, Averil Opperman's perfect gem of a biography brings this spirited British heroine to life in a way that her rather sober portrait could never do.

The courageous daughter of a Norfolk gent, Elizabeth (eventually) fell for her stolid suitor and gradually exchanged her love of bright fashion and opera for days spent campaigning for law reform and reading to prostitutes.

Born in 1780, Elizabeth was the third of 13 children of kindly banker John Gurney and his wife Catherine. The siblings spent a joyful childhood playing hide and seek in the many rooms, corridors and cupboards of their home, Earlham Hall.

As a Quaker, their father believed in educating his seven daughters and allowing them to speak freely. And as a 'gay' Quaker, Gurney allowed his energetic brood to enjoy music, dancing and fine clothes of which their 'plain' brethren (like his brother Joseph) disapproved.

But there was sadness too. Catherine Gurney died when Elizabeth was just 12 and her youngest brother was still a toddler.

As a small child, little 'Betsy' had been more sensitive than her elder sisters. She felt she was neither commanding like Kitty, nor beautiful like Rachel, and became so terrified of death that she would regularly creep through the house in the middle of the night to check on her delicate mother. Now her worst fear had come to pass.

Betsy's love of gaiety and her desire to please her merry family would always battle against her more serious side that caused her to question their luxurious life.

'I am a bubble, without reason, without beauty of mind or person,' she wrote in her diary at 17. 'If some kind or great circumstance does not happen to me, I shall have my talents devoured by moth and rust.' She was inspired to good works by a visiting American Quaker and, aged 18, she had established a school for 70 poor local children in the laundry of Earlham Hall. 'Betsy's Imps', her bemused siblings called the mucky kids.

And although Elizabeth dreaded 'turning plain', she knew that was what was happening to her.

The shift was cemented when she married the London banker Joseph Fry in 1800, taking her time to appreciate the good, honest heartthat dwelt beneath his blunt manners. …

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