Clare Mulley is an English writer and last year she released her biography of the founder of ‘Save the Children’, Eglantine Jebb. It was released in hardback in April 2009, paperback early in 2010 and is now available in Australia both online and in good bookshops. All Clare’s royalties go to Save the Children
Clare is visiting to share the inspiration behind and process of writing ‘The Woman Who Saved teh Children: A Biography of Eglantine Jebb, Founder of Save the Children’.
Why Eglantyne? How did you come to her story?
I first came across Eglantyne when I was working as a rather struggling fundraiser at the charity she founded: Save the Children. Having a nosy root through the organisation’s archive one day I found a very distressing leaflet crumpled down the side of a plastic crate, which featured a photograph of a starving Austrian child that Eglantyne had published, without the consent of the government censors, at the end of the First World war. In the top right-hand corner was the word ‘suppressed!’, pencilled in Eglantyne’s unmistakeable scratchy writing, the exclamation mark expressing her personal outrage at the Liberal government’s policy to continue the economic blockade of Europe after the armistice as a way of pushing through harsh peace terms with the defeated countries. The result of this policy was widespread starvation accross Austria and Germany. Eglantyne had been arrested in London’s Trafalgar Square in 1919 for distributing these leaflets, and chalking up the pavements in an attempt to get her message across. She was found guilty, but the public prosecutor was so moved by her testimony that he pressed the sum of her fine into her hands – a gift that became the first donation towards Eglantyne’s new ‘Save the Children Fund’. I knew then that I was on to a good story – but not just quite how good it would turn out to be.
How difficult was it to research her life and work? Was the material easy to find?
There was plenty of material – my first stop was the Jebb family who still own the house where Eglantyne grew up, and who kindly invited me to come and stay with them – sleeping in Eglantyne’s old bedroom! They had at least 20 huge boxes filled with letters, photos and diaries – and that was just the start. As I followed her around, 80 years after her death, meeting Jebb relatives and descendants of her friends and boyfriends, I found myself not only sleeping in her room, but sitting at her typewriter, eating from her plates, and even holding a curl of her still bright red baby-hair. But often the most interesting stuff was the hardest to find. A collection of love letters only appeared after several meetings when I guess I had passed muster with the owners, and I came to a complete dead-end with another passionate romance that had ended very abruptly. Eglantyne must have destroyed any letters she had. Luckily coincidence introduced me to her lost love’s grandson, and soon I had the other perspective on the romance, never seen before. At times like this, when old books ordered online came with secret dedications inside them, or when I found the door to a house where she had once lived left open… I could not help imagining Eglantyne’s hand on my shoulder saying, ‘come on… over here’.
Did all accounts of Eglantyne’s life agree with each other? And if not, how did you choose what to include, what to delete?
There has only been one previous biography of Eglantyne, written in the 1960s, which misses out much of what makes her so interesting, like her sexuality and her spirituality, while focussing on her ‘saint-like’ qualities, which I felt did not ring true at all. Because she never married or had children, Eglantyne was once presented as having sacrificed her own personal life as a woman to focus on championing the welfare and rights of children. I found out that in fact Eglantyne had never liked children, who she once referred to as ‘the little wretches’. ‘The dreadful idea of closer acquaintance never entered my mind’, she wrote looking back, and she certainly never intended to have a family. Her focus on children was not a redirection of some frustrated maternal impulse, but a courageous statement of humanitarian compassion which much of the world had lost sight of following the horrors of the First World War. Indeed much of the time when I found contradictory reports of Eglantyne I discovered that it was because she was seemingly a fairly contrary woman – not maternal but dedicating her life to children, a most political apolitical campaigner, a committed Christian determined to set up a non-religious organisation, frail in body strong in mind… I think it was these complexities that fascinated me most about her.
Yep, I think people buying a biography generally expect a cradle to grave narrative, but it is fun to play with this a little. All of my chapters are quite strongly themed, so there is one looking at maternalism, others on love, spirituality, war, internationalism (which includes the fact that Australia was one of the first countries to set up a sister Save the Children organisation – still going strong from its base in Melbourne). I think this make it a more interesting read. On top of that I was very keen not to write a dry academic biography, so I decided to take the reader with me on my quest to discover Eglantyne. At times you get to look round her houses, open her diaries and have dinner with her boyfriend’s grandson…
How do you present a biography to a publisher? Did you complete the manuscript first or did you pitch a sample and outline?
I had an excellent agent who told me what he wanted for a proposal to go out to publishers, which included a sample chapter and outline of the rest, overview of target audience, competing and comparable titles etc.
You speak very passionately about Eglantyne and the Save the Children charity that she established. Do you think you will write more about them? Are you interested in writing another biography? Or any other writing?
I am writing more about her! I am writing the text for a children’s picture book biography – for which I have a wonderful illustrator, so that is very exciting. But I am also looking forward to leaving Eglantyne behind, and am busy with a proposal for a group biography of three brilliant and passionate dissident Victorian sisters, who struggled with the inheritance of their world famous father… it’s another wonderful story, and I only hope I can do it justice.
How do you publicise ‘The Woman…Founder of Save the Children’ (man that’s a title and a half!)? When you do publicity are you representing yourself as a writer or the Save the Children organisation or both?
I wanted to write a biography, not a ‘charity book’, so although Save the Children are in fact getting all of the author royalties from the book, I kept the charity’s branding pretty hidden inside. Likewise I give a lot of talks at literary festivals, history events, academic conferences, bookshops etc, but as a biographer not a representative of the Fund. I have also been interviewed on a fair bit of radio, including ABC, and written a lot of articles, blogs, facebook pages etc to promote the book. But I was delighted to become a Campaigns Ambassador for Save the Children last year, and I also give a lot of talks to Save the Children fundraising groups and so on. It is great that one has led to the other.
Thanks so much Clare, for visiting and sharing your story and Eglantyne’s. To learn more about Clare and her work, you can visit her website here