Wednesday 11 March 2009

Clare's Save the Children Blog

In March 2009 Save the Children invited me to be a guest blogger on their website

Here are some of the posts... 

Grave Concerns

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Eglantyne died in December 1928, and was buried in a cheap wooden coffin at St George’s Cemetery in Geneva. From her grave it is just possible to see Mount Saleve, the imposing mountain just south of the city that Eglantyne had loved, and had climbed many times to help clear her head and gain some perspective on the issues that were concerning her.

Eglantyne had actually hoped to be buried somewhere on the mountain, and there is some evidence that her friend William MacKenzie, who made the funeral arrangements, had wanted to honour this wish. He had specified a simple gravestone, intriguingly with ‘no fibs’ to be written on it, and a cheap wooden coffin with ‘inexpensive fittings. And no name plate’. It is ‘a barbarous habit to label a coffin as tho’ you were inside it!!!’ he wrote, and in the end Eglantyne’s coffin only bore her initials. Most likely however he was simply agreeing with Eglantyne’s sentiment that once the spirit has flown, the rest is dust.  MacKenzie then planned a memorial to Eglantyne high on the mountain, but it proved too expensive and the funds raised eventually went to support programmes in Ethiopia instead.  Perhaps this is more fitting - Eglantyne would have been horrified at the thought of money being diverted away from Save the Children’s programmes, and in any case, she had long believed she was more spirit that flesh. ‘If I be dead, yet still I am not there,’ she wrote in her poem ’A Last Message: ‘For what you love is not my mortal frame; I would not be confused with a corpse; O! let not, then, a corpse assume my name!’

Perhaps it is a good thing that Eglantyne held this attitude, because her corpse has had several close encounters with disinternment. In 1990 some oversight meant that the lease on her grave was not renewed, and somebody else was nearly allocated her plot at St George’s. Only the quick work of a concerned visitor alerted Save the Children to the situation, and the lease was renewed in time. Perhaps it was a twenty-year arrangement, as earlier this year the cemetery again got in touch with Save the Children, letting them know that the rights granted to her gravestone were again about to expire. Very sensibly Save the Children wrote to the Jebb family, and after six months of talks the Executive Council of the City of Geneva have just agreed to maintain Eglantyne’s grave for an indefinite period and at no cost, in acknowledgement of the fundamental role Eglantyne played in the recognition and promotion of children’s rights. Wonderful. Huge sighs of relief all round; ‘the news was like a blast of warm sunshine on what was a cold, wet and windy day’ Lionel Jebb wrote in response.

What would Eglantyne have made of all this fuss? I think she would be laughing, and probably from up on the mountain, not down in the cemetery.

'Cabbages, cherries and a new biography as featured on Women's Hour...'

Sunday 14 June 2009

This Saturday I got my first taste of spruiking. I always have books to sign and sell after giving a talk, but this was different; the real hard-core ‘roll up, roll up ladies pll-llease… I have cabbages, I have cherries, I have a new biography as featured on Women’s Hour…’ in the front of a Waterstones shop in Bury St Edmunds.

It is a pretty daunting task calling out your wares in a busy bookshop I can tell you, but I quickly learned from experience what does and doesn’t work. A polite, ‘a bit of social history this morning, sir?’ for example had minimal effect, although it did send one man rather rapidly back out of the shop (sorry Waterstones!) A well-timed mention of Women’s Hour, Jenni Murray or Paul O’Grady (who gave me a cover quote) however proved much more productive. ‘She rode bicycles too’ even netted one sale from a nice man in tight lycra… It is amazing how easy it is to get into role once you’re on a roll, and what started out as terrifying soon became a laugh as lots of people stopped for a chat, so at least I didn’t feel like Mulley-no-mates.

Most of the people who bought a copy of the biography were just browsing, a few said that they had heard of the book - or that they had heard me on Women’s Hour (no, not just women), and two had come in specifically to buy a copy.  But two incidents particularly touched me - one was when a young girl, perhaps 10, who was out with her nan to find a present for her mum, thought that the book would be perfect. But the £18.99 was clearly above budget. ‘What a shame’, nan said, ‘never mind’. But the girl insisted, and spent all her savings - so I do hope, Shelly, that you enjoy it! The other was when a woman I had been talking to said she was actually not earning because she was disabled, so she couldn’t possibly afford it - but then insisted on giving me a donation for Save the Children anyhow. Aren’t people wonderful!

So thank you, Bury St Edmunds Waterstones punters; my scary pile of books pretty quickly sold out and I was almost disappointed that my spruiking career had come to a close. Unless any other Waterstones, Blackwell’s, Borders… fancies a hosting a ‘Meet the Author’ morning??

Optical Research

Wednesday 10 June 2009

I am a very nosy person. What could be a more legitimate excuse for delving into the fascinating life, letters, unpublished novels, houses, bottom drawers, last will and testament… of someone who intrigues you, than writing their biography? Aware of the potentially invasive nature of the role, I once described it as psycho-stalking, and was duly ticked off by a more established writer. The thing is that while remaining respectful, you have to find out everything possible about your subject. Sometimes this does involve, if not stalking the person, certainly following in their footsteps by visiting all the places that had meaning for them. Antonia Fraser coined the rather more professional-sounding term ‘optical research’ for this activity, and it was a type of research I threw myself into it.

Researching Eglantyne I visited her Shropshire family home, The Lyth, several times, once even staying in the nursery where she would have slept as a child. It was easy to picture her hurrying out of the floor-length windows when dull visitors called, and dragging her magazines up the yew trees for a moment to read in peace. I also went to her Oxford college, Lady Margaret Hall, and I produced a mini-Eglantyne tour of Cambridge where she lived for several years, taking in the possible sites for her house as well as relevant colleges, friends houses, her charities office, and the ‘darkenning marshes’ where she once considered ‘drowning her grief’ after the man of her affections proposed to another. Six-months pregnant I even made it to  the top of Mount Saleve outside Geneva, albeit taking the cable-car most of the way, where it snowed down on me and over the view that Eglantyne loved so much, and had breathed in while drafting her statement of children’s human rights. Wonderful.

It is easy to criticise such visits as a desperate attempt to get some affinity with your subject, during which imagination, dare I say invention, is required to get any return… but that would be wrong. For me it was hugely valuable to share a view with Eglantyne however I could, and what I gained was more than an insight into mood. I saw thousand tiny clues as to where she gained her inspiration, from the pretentious wallpaper that she laughed at in her novels, to the claustrophobia in her tiny charity office and her need for ‘the great open spaces’ that helped to clear her mind.

This week I was invited to give a talk for Save the Children’s Marlborough and Pewsey branch, and I was particularly delighted as Marlborough - where Eglantyne taught for one difficult year - was the one main place I had somehow failed to get to when writing the book. It was great to see ‘The Woman Who Saved the Children’ on order at the district library now housed in Eglantyne’s former school - but a bit of a surprise to see a blue plaque to Eglantyne on the outside of the building. I had not known that she was honoured here, and since my last chapter which looks at Eglantyne’s death and memorials is called ‘Blue Plaques’ I have quickly asked the publisher for an ammendment to include this in any future reprints! For anyone with the first edition, yours will be unique!

So ‘optical research’ has proved its worth again, and I have learned that you don’t have to stalk someone, even post-mortem, to produce a good biography, but you really do have to retrace their steps in the most literal sense, to gain the fullest picture.

Women in History

Wednesday 3 June 2009

Having researched, written and launched the book I am now in the middle of what is apparently the author’s main job - promoting the thing. For me this mostly entails giving a number of talks, including a few for Waterstones bookshops where I speak as part of a panel talking about ‘Women in History’. Inevitably the British historian and TV broadcaster David Starkey comes in for some short sharp critisim during the intro to these events, as earlier this year he very publicly took to task what he called ‘feminised history’, claiming that ‘if you are to do a proper history of Europe before the last five minutes, it is a history of white males because they were the power players and to pretend anything else is to falsify’. Thank you David Starkey, and that will be the same Starkey who is the author of ‘Elizabeth: Apprenticeship’, ‘Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne’ and ‘Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII’…

Eglantyne out of the history books since 1967

This has made me question why it is that there has not been another biography of Eglantyne since 1967 when the wonderfully titled ‘Rebel Daughter of a Country House’ was published. Partly I guess Eglantyne has just not fitted well with academic and broadcasting trends. She is clearly not a ‘great man’ of the type so favoured by David Starkey, but neither is she an obvious choice for the main critics of this narrow approach. As a representative of the priviledged elite she might not appeal to Marxist historians for example, and feminist historians researching the hidden history of women in the private and public spheres might also not be drawn to a woman whose public vocation was focused around children.

Female pioneers have often exploited maternal rhetoric to promote their own causes

Interestingly, notions of femininity and in particular motherhood have not only historically been used to contain women’s interests and demands, but have also offered women opportunities for social action. Many female social pioneers more famous than Eglantyne exploited maternal rhetoric to promote their causes. Even Florence Nightingale, not an obviously maternal woman, referred to the soldiers of the Crimea as her sons; once writing for example ‘oh my poor men: I am a bad mother to come home and leave you in your Crimean graves’. How much Nightingale was motivated by frustrated maternal impulse, and how much she was exploiting the loaded language of maternalism, is debatable. Interestingly though, most British domestic children’s charities were established by rather sentimental - could we say maternal - men; including the Foundling Hospital, Barnardos, NCH, the Children’s Society, and the NSPCC, while most high achieving female social activists seemed to focus on anything else from prison to hospital reform.

Eglantyne was not herself beyond using emotive calls to women, mothers and others, to promote Save the Children, but privately she made her feelings quite clear. ‘I suppose it is a judgement on me, for not caring about children, that I am made to talk all day long about the universal love of humanity towards them’ she wrote to a friend after launching the Fund in 1919! Eglantyne was not motivated by maternal or overtly sentimental feeling towards individual children, but by a passionate humanitarian impulse to help children as people, and as the next generation of citizens, irrespective or gender, race, faith or anything else. Her achievement in putting the welfare and human rights of the world’s children on the international agenda is powerful testament to this humanitarian spirit, and it is this complexity and all inclusive humanity that makes her story both so hugely important, and so very interesting. This is not ‘feminised history’, this is social history at its best!


Wednesday 27 May 2009

19 May being the 90th anniversary of Save the Children, it also seemed an auspicious day to launch the book. Save UK’s Vice President, Gordon Campbell Gray, who also happens to own One Aldwych among a collection of small-but-perfectly-formed hotels around the world, very generously provided the venue, drinks and eats, and some fabulous flowers left over from a visit by Bill Clinton set the room off perfectly. Eglantyne was done proud, while her waste-not-want-not was also appeased. Likewise it was a small but appropriate guest list. Save the Children Trustee Alex Duncan hosted, on behalf of the Fund, among others several press and potential book reviewers, some fabulous supporters of the Fund (including one who had volunteered for over 50 years!), my editors in chief (my publisher and my sister), and a fitting collection of Jebbs and Buxtons, many of whom had been extremly supportive throughout the research and writing process.

Given Eglantyne’s love of the absurd and incongruous, it was also an appropriately surreal evening. My sister arrived looking rather lop-sided, having hastily shoved her going-out shoes in her bag that morning only to find one high-heel and one flat when getting ready for the party. My determindly atheist husband struggled somewhat making polite-chat with the woman from Radio 2’s Good Morning Sunday programme, and my talk was interrupted when I was heckled by my own phone… But the real comedy moment came afterwards when heading for a drink with Rosie Shannon (Save the Children’s Head of PR), Francesca Buxton (Eglantyne’s great great niece), my husband and my sister, and we found ourselves at a cabaret night in a bar in a nearby converted public toilet. It’s true! It was however the perfect creative planning venue - we have now decided that Eglantyne’s life really ought to be made into a film (starring who? Cate Blanchett, Renee Zellweger, all suggestions welcome - and even more if you can name and introduce the backers); that there should be a version of Eglantyne’s story written for children and young people (watch this space SCF schools programme coordinators); and that the current book really should be reviewed in the Times (look out for it this Sunday, fingers crossed…)

All in the anniversary felt appropriately marked and the book well and truly launched - thank you very much to everyone who helped to make it happen. But what touched me most was that the last person to buy a book on the evening wasn’t one of the guests at all, but one of the hotel staff who had been coming in and out to look after us at One Aldwych… as ever, Eglantyne appeals to everyone!

Anniversary Celebrations

Wednesday 20 May 2009

90 years ago this week Eglantyne Jebb and her sister Dorothy launched a new fund to help provide milk and aid to the children in Europe who were starving to death - 800 a day in Germany - as a result of the post-war British economic blockade.

Eglantyne had been arrested in Trafalgar Square a few weeks earlier for distributing leaflets that had not been cleared by the government censors, like the one in my first blog, to raise public awareness about the European famine. She had insisted on conducting her own case at her trial, sensibly focusing on the moral arguments. Technically found guilty, she was fined just £5, ‘which’, she wrote to her mother, ’is equivalent to victory’.

Her next letter went to the papers, and by the following day she had gained coverage in five nationals. Building on this publicity Eglantyne and Dorothy decided to call a public famine meeting. Although nervous about the response they might get, the sisters were also ambitious, and decided to book the Royal Albert Hall. In the event there were not enough seats for the crowd that arrived - although unfortunately many had come with rotten fruit to throw at the traitors who wanted to give succour to the ‘enemy’. Eglantyne was a nervous public speaker, but her voice rose with passion as she went on - until she was demanding ’surely it is impossible for us, as normal human beings, to watch children starve to death without making an effort to save them’. The crowd began to applaud. Within ten days £10,000 had been donated which went to provide sustainable relief through the delivery of Swiss dairy cows to Vienna.

This meeting happened yesterday - 90 years ago. And yesterday I was delighted to be invited down to talk to staff at Save the Children in London about the history of this wonderful organisation. Afterwards some of them cornered me and made me talk to tape - if you missed the talk you can see the video on this YouTube

Thank you very much for inviting me in, and thank you very much for all the inspiring work that everyone who works at Save the Children, or supports Save the Children does, to make sure that children still receive relief in emergencies - irrespective of their race, faith, politics or anything else. It is a privilege to be involved!

Amazon addiction

Friday 1 May 2009

Oh dear, I have found a new way to delay doing any work… checking the online Amazon sales ranking of my biography of Eglantyne Jebb - SCF’s founder. The ranking is a kind of scary irregular pulse that tells you how any book is selling compared to all the rest in Amazon’s warehouse on an hour-by-hour basis.

Before the book was published it had a static ranking of 500,000 or so. Last week things started to move; a full page article in the Daily Mail with a very nice pic of young Eglantyne brought me up sharp to 4,102nd place. To be honest I have no idea if that is good or bad or utterly meaningless, but it seems quite a leap.

Reviews in the Sunday Times, Church Times and a few other places kept things interesting, and then yesterday I was interviewed on BBC Radio Four’s ‘Women’s Hour’. Excited and terrified, I hung about listening to the show and watching the clock in the waiting room until my allocated 8 minute slot towards the end of the programme approached - then I nearly missed it with an ill-timed trip to the loo followed by a wrong turn into the wrong lobby… fortunately I was rescued and ushered into the recording room where Jenni Murray gave me a huge smile and counted down to ‘live on air’… 8 minutes never went so fast! At the end she thanked me and I thanked her, and we sat there a while, cosily listening to the pre-recorded play that came on next, until she politely smiled again and said ‘you know, you can go now…’

I think it went ok - you can have a listen on iPlayer if you want to and click on ‘listen again’. Certainly my Amazon ranking shot right up - by the end of the day the book was up to number 2,459 in their overall sales, and was 7th biggest seller in biography/women, and 15th in biography/history - happily rubbing shoulders with Mandela and Darwin! So hopefully it’s raising some decent funds for SCF… and it’s nice to know that Eglantyne can still raise a strong pulse… even 80 years after she died.

Publication eve

Thursday 23 April 2009

So seven years after I first got interested in Eglantyne the book is due to be published - tomorrow!

I am of course extremely excited and rather nervous. My mother has rather sweetly just sent me a card congratulating me on the imminent birth of my fourth child - and in some ways it has felt like a rather long labour and at times painful delivery! In fact the producing the book has often made me think about my own experience as a mother - I promise not to get too far fetched here, but I have not been unaware of the ironies involved in sneaking away from my own childcare time to write the life of a woman who had no kids of her own but dedicated her life to championing child welfare - from a strategic distance. Eglantyne’s own lack of maternal sentiment is one of the many intriguing things about her, I even ended up calling one early chapter, when she taught in a working class school for a short while, ‘Testing the maternal impulse’.

Meanwhile I found out I was pregnant with my third daughter the week I got a publishing deal, and nine months later I spent many hours typing away on the last few chapters with my beautiful baby on my lap either sleeping or feeding. I got very good a typing with one hand.

And now here we are on the eve of publication - it is not the same as having a child of course, nothing like, but I do feel like I am losing protective control of this long nurtured thing and sending it off out there on its independent shelf-life. Death of an author, birth of a book…

Psycho-stalking Eglantyne Jebb - part two

Wednesday 25 March 2009

As I started my research the residue evidence of Eglantyne’s life got more and more intriguing. Eglantyne had no children of her own but the granchildren of her elder brother still live at The Lyth, the magnificent Shropshire home in which Eglantyne grew up. Lionel Jebb and his wife Corinna were wonderfully supportive during my research, inviting me to stay with them - I slept in Eglantyne’s old nursery room - and generally giving me a free hand to plough through their boxes of papers and family albums.

Here were her childhood diaries, bunches of illustrated letters to remote aunts, and most excitingly piles of torrid love letters, tied in neat bunches and stashed in a box… Visits to the families of other relatives and friends were equally revealing. Her younger sister Dorothy’s grandson, Ben Buxton, was an archeology lecturer and had an instinctive understanding of my need for evidence - and once gave me an aging manilla envelope out of which I pulled a still bright red curl of Eglantyne’s baby-hair; real DNA, that was quite odd! Later I ate from Eglantyne’s plates, put flowers on her grave, and I even bought my own copy of the signature I had seen so often on letters in archives, when it popped up on eBay.

Sometimes it felt slightly uncomfortable opening Eglantyne’s private letters and diaries, and I used to think of my research as sort of psycho-stalking her, although only with the best intentions.  However once, when I had come to a dead-end when trying to unravel Eglantyne’s doomed love affair with a Cambridge don, Marcus Dimsdale, I found myself by coincidence having a drink with a friend of this man’s family. Just two weeks later I was sitting down to dinner with Robert and Nicholas Dimsdale, Marcus’s grandson and great nephew, and learning all about the other perspective on this romance… for once I had the uncanny feeling that it was perhaps the ghosts who were stalking me!

All in I loved researching the book. I am a very nosey person anyhow which helps, but Eglantyne’s life had so many intriguing stories and half-hidden traits that it was a joy to tease the truths out. I hope the result is worth this wonderful subject! Finally do comment on my blog and let me know if you have any thoughts or questions about Eglantyne and her life, or the process of writing a biography. Also I have a number of book talks coming up around Britain so do please come along to hear me - details under events on my website.

Psycho-stalking Eglantyne Jebb

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Hello - I have just been planning my first public talk about the book and someone told me that people are generally much more interested in what goes on behind the scenes in writing a biography, than your actual subject… I hope there is some truth in this because my biography of Eglantyne wears its research on its sleeve a bit - that is to say I feature marginally in the book, especially at the start and end, and popping up occassionally when I needed to change the pace of the read - the result is you get to hear a little about my research as I did it. I wouldn’t have written it this way, of course, if I didn’t think there was a pretty good sub-plot going on there - so here is some of it…

As I said in my last blog, I first came up with the idea of writing about Eglantyne when I was a fundraiser at Save the Children in the 1990s. What really grabbed me was finding a rather crumpled leaflet down the back of a box in the old archive.

Starving Baby Leaflet
The leaflet featured a horrific photograph of a starving Austrian infant; a 2  1/2 year old whose legs look more feeble than my 13 month old baby’s do today, because her physical development had been arrested as a result of malnutrition. Pencilled in the top right-hand corner of the leaflet was the single word ’suppressed!’. This is in Eglantyne’s handwriting, neat but hurried, the exclamation mark recording her personal indignation at the British government’s decision to restrict public awareness of the human cost of their policy to continue the economic blockade to Europe after the armistice. I knew then that Eglantyne’s was going to be a gripping story.

Introducing The Woman Who Saved the Children

Friday 13 March 2009

Hello, my name is Clare Mulley and I am ‘the woman who wrote’ The Woman Who Saved the Children: A Biography of Eglantyne Jebb, Founder of Save the Children, which is published on 24 April. And now - I am delighted to report - I am also a guest blogger on this website!

I first came across Eglantyne when working as a struggling corporate fundraiser at Save the Children in the 1990s. Feeling rather brow-beaten by a few unsuccessful weeks of proposal writing I found my faith in human nature restored by a reassuring line that Eglantyne had written 80 years earlier; ‘the world is not ungenerous, but unimaginative and very busy’. That’s it, exactly. I was immediately intrigued by this woman with a gift for one-liners, but far too busy to do anything much about it. Then when I left Save the Children to have my first daughter - thereby showing far less commitment to the organisation than Eglantyne who never had children - I took the opportunity to have a quick root about in Save the Children’s archives. There among the piles of files and shelves of gifts to HRH, was Eglantyne’s Smith Corona Portable typewriter, ’such a bad one’ she had once moaned, some personal letters between her and her college friends, and a rather crumpled leaflet headed ‘A Starving Baby’ above a photograph of an Austrian child: a young girl whose physical development had been arrested as a result of malnutrition. Marked in pencil, in the top right hand corner, was the single word ’suppressed!’. I knew then that I was onto a good story…

It amazes me that so little has been written about Eglantyne, she is a gem of a subject who not only founded Save the Children with her sister Dorothy in 1919, but went on to establish the Save the Children International Union the following year, save the lives of thousands of children, pioneer modern fundraising, redefine how child welfare operates, influence the direction and operations of the fledgling League of Nations and write social policy of permanent world significance with her pioneering statement of children’s human rights which has since evolved into the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - the most widely accepted human rights instrument in history. All in an era before women had the vote, and from a woman who - I discovered to my delight - claimed she did not care for children!

Biography should be more than just an assemblage of facts, it needs some degree of creative empathy to bring these facts to life. And for me what made Eglantyne so interesting as I pieced her story together was not just her amazing achievements, but her strikingly eccentric and passionate personality - not just her doing, but her being. Why ‘Save the Children’ if she was not fond of them? An intelligent and strikingly beautiful woman why did she never marry? Were her regular illnesses, her emotional highs and lows, and vivid imagination, in any way linked? Why did she always seem to wear such dour clothes, and what, exactly, was going on in her head?

I hope that you might be interested enough in Eglantyne to get a copy of the book* - all royalties are being donated to Save the Children so there are very few excuses! But I will also endeavour to try to bring Eglantyne a little bit to life through this blog, as well as talk about what it was like to research and write the book - and when it comes out I hope to talk a little about that too! In the meantime if you have anything you’d like me to look at please just let me know on these pages!