Saturday, 29 August 2015

What would my subjects make of their biographies?

I have written biographies of two very different women. The Woman Who Saved the Children (Oneworld Publications, 2009) tells the story of Eglantyne Jebb, founder of the charity The Save the Children Fund and pioneering champion of children’s human rights. A very independent-minded Edwardian lady, the flame-haired Eglantyne was quite a woman. She graduated from Oxford university to illicit romance in Cambridge. After disappointment in love and a dalliance with spiritualism she undertook espionage in Serbia, and endured public arrest in Trafalgar Square before launching Save the Children in London’s Royal Albert Hall after the end of the First World War. Throughout her life she rode horses and bicycles, saw ghosts and climbed mountains. A woman with a very vivid imagination, she wrote poems, romantic novels, and the first ever statement of children’s human rights. Her courage, passion and determination have forever changed the way in which the world treats children.
Eglantyne was not a self-promoting woman, but she was very good at marketing and quite prepared to fly the flag for the Fund at every opportunity. I am relieved to think she would be quite happy to see her story told, and delighted to know that all the author’s royalties are donated to the wonderful charity that she founded.

My second book, The Spy Who Loved (Macmillan, 2012), tells the secrets and lives of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, a Polish Countess who became the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent during the Second World War. Perhaps not surprisingly, Christine’s story has been rather more concealed than Eglantyne’s. My biography is called The Spy Who Loved, because Christine was a very passionate woman. She loved adrenaline and adventure. She loved men – she had two husbands and numerous lovers who all get a mention in the book. But above all, Christine loved freedom and independence – both for her country, Poland, and for herself personally. It was because of her very passionate nature that, after her early death, a group of six men who had once served with her formed ‘the panel to protect the reputation of Christine Granville’ in an attempt to prevent unauthorised books and articles about her from being published. Like Eglantyne, Christine was a woman ahead of her times and these men felt that the world was not yet ready for their very modern heroine. I believe that Christine would approve of many of the changes in society today, such as the greater opportunities for women, although not all, such as the prejudice still facing many Polish people in Britain. So I think she might be pleased that her story was being told within the context of her country’s war history, to remind people of why there is such a historic bond between our nations.

Taking Isabel’s question a little further, however, I can not now help wondering what these two women would have thought about the content of my books, not just the fact of the books’ existence.

Biographers have a tricky job. I aim for accuracy, and yet I know there are many kinds of truth – the dry truth of fact, but also emotional and moral truths, and often these may be contradictory. A person may tell a story, even their own story, and yet the truth told is often not one corroborated by the ‘facts’ found in archives, buildings or photograph albums. Likewise, I have found that there is character which may be unfulfilled, as well as character acted upon. Are things less true to a person, less telling of their nature, if they remained in the realm of aspiration or desire? And to whom does the biographer owe their allegiance, should a story become controversial or someone reveal their less pleasant nature – to their subject, or their descendants, or to the reader and the record? And can any biography be other than anachronistic, however hard the author tries not to benefit from hindsight?

Perhaps I have been fortunate to have written, thus far, about rather remarkable women, both of whom I have found deeply inspiring. And yet both Eglantyne and Christine are women who lived and loved, fought and feigned in a different age, when social mores and personal morals were quite different than those of today. And both these women defied the expectations of their age on several levels.

Biographies, I feel, should be regarded not just as windows onto the past, but as mirrors of our own concerns and interests. Perhaps that is why there are so many biographies of figures like Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and Joan of Arc. The people we are interested in are anchored in one point in time, but new books are always being written about them from different perspectives, addressing the questions perhaps more pertinent to the writer and reader than to the subject. Of course Eglantyne and Christine might not have wished to have their love-lives exposed, (actually I think Christine would have laughed, but I doubt Eglantyne would have been happy) but had they been born today, I think both might have campaigned for equality, freedom and the enactment of human rights and decency – and, since hopefully these are what my biographies support through the telling of their lives, I think I might just get away with it!


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