The Woman who Saved the Children

My guest this week is Clare Mulley, British author of The Woman Who Saved the Children: a biography of Eglantyne Jebb, founder of the international SAVE THE CHILDREN movement.

Clare has written a fascinating account of the passionate woman who started the world-wide fund in 1919 – the complex and charismatic Eglantyne Jebb.

Eglantyne Jebb

After WW1, when the British Government continued its economic blockade of much of Europe, huge numbers of children and the elderly in Germany and Austria, in particular, were starving to death. Eglantyne could not stand by and let it continue. What happened next is the basis of Clare Mulley’s fascinating book.

Clare was very happy to tell us about the story of the amazing Eglantyne Jebb, a woman who confessed she was ‘not fond’ of children, but who showed an enormous capacity to care for them.

Clare, how did you first become interested in Eglantyne Jebb?

I used to work at Save the Children as a rather struggling fundraiser when I came across a line that Eglantyne had written eighty years earlier…

the world is not ungenerous, but unimaginative and very busy.

I was amazed at how true this still was, and intrigued to find out a little more about the woman. When I went on maternity leave I took the opportunity to root about in the charity’s archives, and among other things in a plastic crate, I found a crumpled leaflet that Eglantyne had published in 1919, showing a very upsetting photo of a starving Austrian child. In the top right hand corner Eglantyne had scribbled the word ‘suppressed!’

The exclamation mark showing her outrage at the British Liberal government’s decision to continue the economic blockade to Europe after the war as a way of pushing through harsh peace terms.

Eglantyne was arrested for distributing these leaflets in Trafalgar Square, but insisted on conducting her own defence, giving the court reporters plenty to pad out their stories with. Although she was found guilty, the court prosecutor was so moved by her testimony that he donated the sum of her fine to her cause – one of the first donations put towards The Save the Children Fund. I knew then I was on to a good story – but not just how good it would turn out to be.

What were some of the things you found out about by researching the life of this amazing woman?

One of the things I loved about Eglantyne was that she was passionate and courageous, but also a very complicated woman. Not fond of individual children herself, who she once memorably referred to as ‘the little wretches’, she never had children herself but nonetheless dedicated her life to promoting children’s rights and welfare. Eglantyne recognised that children are unique both in their capacity to suffer and in their potential to give – as the next generation.

Not satisfied with the important ‘ambulance work’ of providing relief, she went on the draft the pioneering statement of children’s human rights that has since evolved into the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, now the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history.

Eglantyne’s story took her from illicit romance in Cambridge to espionage in Serbia, from private spiritualism to public arrest – it was an often hilarious and sometimes desperate journey, but one I found hugely inspiring.

It must have been fascinating to search through Eglantyne’s personal letters and family scrapbooks. I believe you even got to sleep in her childhood nursery and eat from her plates?

Yes, the wonderful Jebb family invited me to stay in the country house where Eglantyne grew up, and I spent most of the night lying awake in case her ghost stopped by. It didn’t of course but in the morning a box of love letters had appeared, which were probably even more revealing.

The granddaughter of her close girl-friend Margaret Keynes, the younger sister of the economist, also once served me dinner on their plates, which set me off wondering whether there might be any DNA traces left after 100 years of dishwashing. And Eglantyne’s great-nephew, an archeology lecturer who understood my need for ‘evidence’, later produced a dusty manilla envelope inside of which was a still bright red curl of Eglantyne’s baby hair, which made me stop in my tracks for a moment… It is a wonderful thing to search for the ‘truth’ of someone in the archives of public libraries, and between the lines of private letters, but it does also throw up lots of ethical questions about honesty and privacy and Eglantyne gave me plenty of sleepless nights…

Clare Mulley

How long did it take you to write the book?

Seven years! But in my defence I did have my three children at the same time, the last one of whom arrived three months before I finished the first draft – so life was pretty full! But I have loved every minute of it – time with my children is always precious, but writing time, of which there was much less, was precious too!

Have you got any other historical projects on the burner?

Yes, I have got the bug now, and am currently researching the lives of three famous, dissident Victorian sisters, who have never had a group biography – another fantastic story – as well writing a life of Eglantyne for children and a few other projects!

How has your life changed since the publication of The Woman Who Saved the Children?

Well, I am very pleased to be able to report that the book has done quite well. It won the British Daily Mail Biographers’ Club Prize, and was praised by our then Prime Minister Gordon Brown as ‘a truly brilliant book’ which was fantastic. It was published in Australia this summer, and is coming out in the USA in the autumn, so I have been quite busy giving talks and things to promote the book, while trying to start work on the next one.

The big thing that has changed is that now I think I can actually call myself a writer, as well as a mum, which feels good! And I am also now a ‘Campaigns Ambassador’ for Save the Children Fund, which receives all the author royalties from the book.

Any chance of an author visit to Australia?

I would love to, but sadly don’t have the funds. If anyone would like to invite me over, expenses paid, for one of your fabulous literary festivals I would be there in a flash!

And what a splendid idea that would be too, Clare! Maybe someone will pass this idea along to the organisers of one of our many literary festivals for 2011.

Thank you so much for your guest interview on my blog, Clare. It’s been fascinating hearing about your book and the research you conducted (being a research-happy person myself), I can appreciate the time and energy you’ve put into writing the story of Eglantyne Jebb.

All the best with your book, and with your career in writing.



One thought on “The Woman who Saved the Children

  1. Sheryl, it was fascinating to read your interview with Clare.
    Eglantyne Jebb must have been difficult to research and I admire Clare’s dedication and effort.

    The Woman Who Saved the Children sounds good and will go into my To be Read pile. Thanks for introducing me to this wonderful book.


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