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Introducing The Woman Who Saved the Children

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 committment 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 fledgeling 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!

All best for now, Clare

*[published 24 April 2009]

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