Eglantyne's is a wonderful story. She set up Save the Children in 1919, at the end of the First World War, to bring relief to the starving children of Austria and Germany - a courageous and controversial aim at that time, and she was arrested in London’s Trafalgar Square for leafleting and chalking up the pavements, among other adventures, in an effort to get her message across. Later she wrote the pioneering statement of children's human rights that has since evolved into the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history.
One of the things I loved about her is that although she dedicated her life to promoting children's welfare and rights, she was not fond of children herself, once calling them 'the little wretches' and in 1919 claiming that 'I suppose it is a judgment on me for not caring about children that I am made to talk, all day long, about the universal love of humanity towards them'. Eglantyne was not an overtly sentimental or maternal woman, but she was inspired by a burning humanitarian compassion that helped to bring many back to reason after the horror of the war, saving the lives of many thousands of children immediately and many millions around the world since, and permanently changing the way the world regards and treats children.
Full of humour and tragedy, passion and pain, Eglantyne’s story takes her from illicit romance in Cambridge to espionage in Serbia, from private spiritualism to public arrest, and from chasing the Pope round the Vatican and being feted by the royals of Europe, and winning the support of both the fledgling League of Nations and Bolshevik government. And yet it is a story that has not been told for more than forty years.
I was working at Save the Children when I stumbled across some of her private letters in the Fund’s London archive, stuffed down a plastic crate, and could not believe how funny and controversial she sounded even today. It has been a fantastic experience getting to know this woman, and discovering that her story still holds huge resonance in today's world, as a powerful testament to the humanitarian spirit in recognizing the complexity and humanity of all people.
Clare Mulley’s award winning biography The Woman Who Saved the Children: A Biography of Eglantyne Jebb is published in paperback by Oneworld Publications, 2010.
All author royalties are being donated to Save the Children. www.claremulley.com
Saturday 11 September, 2010: The Research Process – An Interview with Clare Mulley