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Optical Research

I am a very nosy person. What could be a more legitimate excuse for delving into the fascinating life, letters, unpublished novels, houses, bottom drawers, last will and testament… of someone who intrigues you, than writing their biography? Aware of the potentially invasive nature of the role, I once described it as psycho-stalking, and was duly ticked off by a more established writer. The thing is that while remaining respectful, you have to find out everything possible about your subject. Sometimes this does involve, if not stalking the person, certainly following in their footsteps by visiting all the places that had meaning for them. Antonia Fraser coined the rather more professional-sounding term ‘optical research’ for this activity, and it was a type of research I threw myself into it.

Researching Eglantyne I visited her Shropshire family home, The Lyth, several times, once even staying in the nursery where she would have slept as a child. It was easy to picture her hurrying out of the floor-length windows when dull visitors called, and dragging her magazines up the yew trees for a moment to read in peace. I also went to her Oxford college, Lady Margaret Hall, and I produced a mini-Eglantyne tour of Cambridge where she lived for several years, taking in the possible sites for her house as well as relevant colleges, friends houses, her charities office, and the ‘darkenning marshes’ where she once considered ‘drowning her grief’ after the man of her affections proposed to another. Six-months pregnant I even made it to  the top of Mount Saleve outside Geneva, albeit taking the cable-car most of the way, where it snowed down on me and over the view that Eglantyne loved so much, and had breathed in while drafting her statement of children’s human rights. Wonderful.

It is easy to criticise such visits as a desperate attempt to get some affinity with your subject, during which imagination, dare I say invention, is required to get any return… but that would be wrong. For me it was hugely valuable to share a view with Eglantyne however I could, and what I gained was more than an insight into mood. I saw a thousand tiny clues as to where she gained her inspiration, from the pretentious wallpaper laughed at in her novels, and the claustrophobia in her tiny charity office, to her need for ‘the great open spaces’ that helped to open her mind.

This week I was invited to give a talk for Save the Children’s Marlborough and Pewsey branch, and I was particularly delighted as Marlborough – where Eglantyne taught for one difficult year – was the one main place I had somehow failed to get to when writing the book. It was great to see ‘The Woman Who Saved the Children’ on order at the district library now housed in Eglantyne’s former school – but a bit of a surprise to see a blue plaque to Eglantyne on the outside of the building. I had not known that she was honoured here, and since my last chapter which looks at Eglantyne’s death and memorials is called ‘Blue Plaques’ I have quickly asked the publisher for an ammendment to include this in any furture reprints! For anyone with the first edition, yours will be unique!

So ‘optical research’ has proved its worth again, and I have learned that you don’t have to stalk someone, even post-mortem, to produce a good biography, but you really do have to retrace their steps in the most literal sense, to gain the fullest picture.

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