Friday, July 23, 2010

A Woman Who Cares

Today I’d like to welcome to my blog , friend and author Clare Mulley. Clare and I met when I lived in the UK in a little town called Saffron Walden and our children attended the same school. Clare was also a member of the same book club and I must say that I sadly miss the challenging and stimulating books and conversations...and of course the odd glass of red wine.
Clare’s book, The Woman Who Saved The Children, is the biography of Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save The Children. It has just been released in Australia, so I’ve invited her over for a chat. Clare won the Daily Mail Biographer’s Prize in 2007 and all royalties from the book go to the charity.She has a strong social conscience and is a source of great inspiration.

Welcome Clare, from the other end of the world!

Hello, thank you for hosting me Catriona!

Clare, who was Eglantyne Jebb and what makes her story interesting and relevant today?

Eglantyne was the founder of the world's largest independent children's charity - Save the Children - and author of the pioneering statement of children's human rights that has since evolved into the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; the most widely accepted human rights instrument in history. What makes her story so pertinent today is partly that although much has been done children's human rights are sadly yet to be fully realised. 'It is not impossible to save the children of the world', Eglantyne once said. 'It is only impossible if we make it so, by our refusal to attempt it'. Inspiring stuff.

But it is not just this - Eglantyne's personal story also resonates deeply with modern life. A woman with many inner conflicts, one of the things I love most about her is the fact that despite dedicating her life to promoting children's welfare and rights she was not fond of individual children, whom she once called 'the little wretches', and she never had any of her own. This is not a sentimental story about frustrated maternal impulse, but that of a passionate and compassionate woman, with whom we might all identify, who found children tiring, noisy and stressful but recognised that they hold both huge appeal in the present and collective responsibility for the future and who, unlike those around her, when confronted with children starving to death, bravely decided to do something about it whatever the costs.

Eglantyne’s story takes place long ago and far away from Australia. Can you set the scene for us in terms of the socio economic conditions of the time and the broader context of what was happening in Europe?

In 1919 Eglantyne was arrested in London's Trafalgar Square for distributing leaflets showing photographs of starving Austrian children, that had not been cleared by the British Government censors. Eglantyne was outraged that despite the armistice the Liberal government had decided to continue the economic blockade of Europe to push through harsh peace terms with the defeated countries after the First World War. The net result was that children and the elderly, particularly in Austria and Germany, were starving to death in huge numbers. At her trial Eglantyne insisted on conducting her own defence, focusing on the moral case and giving the court reporters plenty to pad out their stories with. She was found technically guilty and fined £5, 'which', she wrote home triumphantly 'is the equivalent of victory'. The Crown Prosecutor then pressed £5 into her hands - the sum of her fine and the first donation put towards Eglantyne's new 'Save the Children Fund'. Within a year, and after several adventures, Eglantyne had raised over £10,000 and saved the lives of many thousands of children. A few years later, having won the support of the Pope for her non-religious, non-political cause, after a skirt-raising chase round the Vatican, she had moved the charity headquarters to the international city of Geneva and made its programmes truly global. Australia was one of the first countries to set up an affiliate Save the Children Fund, which is still today coordinating fantastic international children's programmes from its base in Melbourne.

What was it about Eglantyne’s character that resonated with you ? To what extent were her life choices different to the conventions of her time?

Eglantyne was a rebel from the start. One of just the second generation of women allowed a university education, when presented with the college rules on her arrival she wondered whether she should 'leave immediately or stay long enough to break all the rules and be sent down...' She stayed but not quietly, and later went on to break just about every social convention going when she chose to teach in a working-class school, decided against marriage and children, embarked on a passionate affair with the younger sister of the economist John Maynard Keynes, undertook secret war work in the Balkans in 1913, rejected the established church for her own spiritual brand of Christianity, and was finally arrested in Trafalgar Square for daring to suggest that the country treat the children of its former enemies with compassion. Courageous, smart and driven, she fought plenty of her own demons, even considering suicide more than once, but finally succeeded in putting children's human rights and welfare on the world agenda for the first time. Like most people I like a flawed heroine, defying convention in the cause of the greater good.

As a fiction writer, I have to get inside my character’s head...even if it’s a baby echidna. To what degree did you get inside Eglantyne’s head . Did you find, like a method actor, that you were taking on aspects of Eglantyne’s persona?

Not really! I used to work for Save the Children as a rather struggling fundraiser, and started researching the book when I left the Fund to have my first child - thereby showing far less commitment to the cause than Eglantyne who of course never had children and remained devoted to the Fund throughout her life. As time went on I became increasingly aware of the irony as I found myself creeping away from some of my childcare responsibilities to research the life of this children's champion, who did not care much for individual children herself. At times I felt like a sort of anti-Jebb! By the end of the book I had been through the whole gamut of affinity and disillusionment, and I hope come to some sort of more objective picture of what Eglantyne was like. But I had certainly inhabited her space in some emotional as well as occasionally literal sense, and I still feel very close to this dead woman whom I have never met.

What is a baby echidna like on the inside?

Answer: wordless! Responds to smells and touch!...

You spent a long time writing Eglantyne’s story. How did you feel when you wrote the last words?

Yes, the book took seven years, in between having kids and the other stuff that life throws at you, so it was very hard to let go, although I was also ready to move on really. Luckily I was late delivering to the publisher already, otherwise I think I could have kept on adding and amending forever. My husband on the other hand was more relieved!

What’s next for you Clare...any chance of branching out into writing for children, or fiction perhaps?

Yes, not fiction, but I am working on two book proposals at the moment, one of which is for a beautiful children's illustrated life of Eglantyne which will look at the issues of children's rights etc through her story. I have a fantastic illustrator to work with so it is very exciting. The other book is a group biography of three passionate, dissident Victorian sisters burdened with the inheritance of having a hugely infamous father. I think it will be great looking at family dynamics, especially now that I have three daughters of my own to manage centre stage.

That sounds fantastic Clare. Keep me posted as I'd love to get copies of both books. It's been great catching up and I'm going out to buy our book club's latest choice and be with you all in spirit.

If you'd like to find out more about Clare, her website is

You can hear and see Clare in action here.

Her book can be ordered through all good bookstores .
For a sneak preview, click here

Clare's book can also be ordered online at boomerang books.

For futher reading, visit some of my friends blogs...

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Catriona and Clare!
    I found your interview fascinating.
    After this I'm almost scared to run with my mini blog tour with Clare and Eglantyne hopefully underway in the next two weeks on