SATURDAY FOCUS: REMARKABLE WOMEN (4) The Research Process
Clare on Mount Saleve,
where Eglantyne … drafted her
pioneering statement of children's human rights …
Today I interview Clare Mulley, author of The Woman Who Saved the Children: a biography of Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children.
Welcome Clare! In the previous three weeks we've already uncovered a great deal about Eglantyne's journey. Today, I am particularly interested in hearing more about the research that went into the writing of the book.
Thank you Mabel! I feel quite excited about being taken back to review the process. It's something I've not though about for in quite a while.
M: You have indicated that ‘The Woman Who Saved the Children’ was a long time (7 years) in the making. Can you remember/explain the germ idea/s that set this story in motion. Did it start with a general topic, a specific idea or with the character whose story you wanted to explore?
C: I was working at Save the Children as a rather struggling fundraiser when I came across a line she wrote some 80 years before; ‘the world is not ungenerous, but unimaginative and very busy’. It was still so true and it intrigued me that her voice sounded so immediate and relevant. When I went on maternity leave, thereby showing far less commitment to the charity than Eglantyne who never had children and devoted her life to the cause she had founded, I took an afternoon to poke around their archives. Down the side of a plastic crate I found a crumpled leaflet Eglantyne had printed, showing a terrible photo of a starving Austrian child, with the word ‘suppressed!’ pencilled in Eglantyne’s scratchy handwriting in the top corner, the exclamation mark showing her indignation at the Liberal government’s policy to continue the economic blockade of Europe after the armistice as a way of pushing through harsh peace terms. Eglantyne was arrested for distributing these leaflets in Trafalgar Square in May 1919, and secured the first donation to her new ‘Save the Children Fund’ from the prosecutor at her court case. I knew then I was on to a good story, but not how good it would turn out to be!
M: At what point did you decide the main focus would be the life of Eglantyne rather than the story of the Save the Children Fund - where did you go from there?
C: There was never any thought that it might be a history of the charity. Eglantyne was a brilliant, courageous, controversial woman whose vision, passion and humanity are still utterly compelling and relevant today. A woman who did not like children, and once called them ‘the little wretches’, she nevertheless devoted her life to promoting their welfare, and more controversially pioneering her revolutionary statement of children’s human rights that has now evolved in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history. I never had any doubt that it as Eglantyne’s story, and her force of character, that captures the imagination – then as now!
M: One of the challenges in researching the life of someone born in the 19th century lies in the sparsity of written records and the inability to interview colleagues and competitors, immediate friends and family. To what extent was this an issue in your research? What were the main sources of information?
C: Eglantyne died in 1928, and not liking kids much never had any of her own, so there were no direct descendents or anyone alive now who knew her that I could trace. However she left plenty of letters, photos, diaries, half-written romantic social novels, transcripts of her spiritual conversations with dead friends, medical records, political fliers, and funny, scratchy sketches… in all of which her personality came blasting through. And she made such an impact wherever she went that there are plenty of accounts of her conducting her own defence at court, chasing the Pope round the Vatican or impressing the trade unions. Sometimes the trail went cold – for example when the man she loved proposed to another, and any letters mentioning the romance were evidently destroyed, but by chance (or was she pulling at my elbow?) I ended up having dinner with the grandson of her sweetheart and getting the story from the other side…
M: What were the main areas of your research?
C: Cradle to grave, warts and all, but some of the things that interested me most were the irony that she was not maternal, her two great love affairs (one unrequited, the other illicit), her spiritualism, and the development of her visionary political and humanitarian ideas… But above all I wanted to capture the person not just the achievements, the little things, her being - as well as her doing.
M: Which areas were most research intensive?
C: Her charmed childhood was easiest, the canvas getting more involved as she grew up of course, the First World War tore the world apart, and she faced some fairly conflicting priorities and duties, and a passionate personal life.
M: Did the research involve you in particular adventures along the way? (Funny, scary, exciting, sad?)
C: There were many modest adventures, from sleeping in Eglantyne’s childhood nursery, to eating from her plates and once even holding a curl of her still bright red baby hair. I was invited into her former houses and offices by numerous strangers, came across secret inscriptions in second hand books once owned by the family, and a secret bar in the garden of her friends Margaret and John Maynard Keynes. I shed tears buying flowers for her grave outside Geneva and laughed out loud at her letters in public archives all round the country. It was great.
M: Tell me about the research process. Where does research begin for you? In your head? Talking with friends? Reading books on allied themes? Library and/or internet search?
C: Research began in the Save the Children archive, and then in a load of boxes stacked in the wonderful drawing room of The Lyth, Eglantyne’s childhood home where the Jebb family still live. Lots and lots of reading, and then it slowly began to filter down into a story, or a series of stories, told at first as anecdotes to patient friends.
M: How did you deal with conflicting reports or evidence?
C: Funnily enough there was not much of this, but I did quite quickly begin to disagree with the usual presentation of Eglantyne as a saint like woman, who sacrificed her life to her cause. Eglantyne was passionate and opinionated, with a mischievous dry wit and brilliant ability to make her case, and although she died young partly exhausted by her struggle, it belittles her to write her off as a female martyr. She was never a sweet old lady, but she was never particularly sweet anyway.
M: Did you consider presenting your manuscript in a format other than the one in which it is told? (For example, as a journal or an oral history) What made you choose a basically chronological narrative approach?
C: Once I saw how funny and engaging Eglantyne was, on top of her huge achievements, I knew she deserved a biography. I think most readers of the genre expect and want a chronological story, and I wanted to respect that. But I have also tried to make each chapter hang on a theme, such as maternal love, romantic love, faith, politics, war etc, so that each effectively tells a story on its own as well.
M: Research can be such an addictive process. How did you know when it was time to stop? Did you have difficulty sorting what to omit/what to include? If so, what was the hardest to let go?
C: You are right; research is addictive! The first chapter I wrote was chapter 6, because I could see the whole story of that moment. I did revise it later but it was clear what dates and theme were bound together, and that did not fundamentally change. Then I went back to the start, but basically I kept researching while I was writing up the chapters that were emerging from the piles of notes and lists I kept on the go all the time. This may not be the best way to do it, but it worked for me!
Of course I could not put everything in. Some I was glad to let go – there are no summaries of charity meeting agendas etc, but I have files of extra bits that failed to make it either because they were not telling enough, or they simply, and infuriatingly, would not fit in to the chapter structures.
M: What did you learn about the research process? (e.g. the excitement of unexpected finds; persistence in not taking ‘no’ for an answer; the need for imagination - to think laterally/divergent thinking).
C: All of those things are true and/or important. I also learned how kind and generous people are, giving up their time and opening up their houses to me.
M: And now it is time for me to thank you, Clare, not only for giving me so much of your time over the past weeks and opening up yourself in the name of Save the Children; but for devoting so much time and energy over a number of years to writing this biography solely to benefit the children of the world.
C: Thank you Mabel. I really appreciate the blog time you've given to spread the word.
The Woman Who Saved the Children:
a biography of Eglantine Jebb
founder of Save the Children
by Clare Mulley
First published by Oneworld Publications, Oxford, England 2009.
From a young age, my Scottish grandfather regaled me with songs and stories of the old world and tales of the Australian bush - pioneering and prospecting tales. Story is implanted in my genes.
At the age of eight I began my first anthology of poetry. Unfortunately, it was never completed … a dog took my pencil … I ran out of paper … my desk broke … and my long-suffering mother suggested I try storytelling instead.
Today I work with story in various formats as an oral teller of tales traditional, literary and original, personal and family; as a writer; and, as an oral historian recording and transcribing personal and group stories (particularly those of indigenous people).
Direct from the Publisher: Stories for the Telling 54 Hudson Avenue, Girrawheen WA 6064 Tel. (08) 9342 7150 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For those on Australia's east coast, it is also available from HARS Souvenirs, cnr Airport and Boomerang Roads Albion Park Rails, New South Wales 2527 and Qantas Founder Outback Museum PO Box 737 Longreach Qld 4730