I first met Clare Mulley in 2006, when we were both taking the same module—The Practice of Biography—at Birkbeck College. I was studying for an MA in Creative Writing and thought Biography would be an interesting diversion from fiction, while Clare was midway through an MA in Social History and already committed to writing her first biography. She quickly established herself as the star of the class, composing a fascinating, and hilarious—but never less than meticulously researched—biography of Snow White as her end of term essay, and achieving an unprecedentedly high mark from course leader Carole Angier—Clare was clearly on her way to great things, and it has been exciting to watch her career progress since those happy, hazy nights of hanging out in the student union bar after class and debating the merits and demerits of footnotes, appendices and the like.
Clare is now the award-winning author of two critically acclaimed biographies. The Woman Who Saved the Children (2009), which won the Daily Mail Biographer’s Club prize, tells the story of Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children and pioneer of children’s human rights. Her latest book, The Spy Who Loved, published last month, is the biography of Christine Granville; the first woman to work as a secret agent for Britain in WWII.
I spoke to Clare about her writing career, her work methods and what makes the best kind of biographical subject for her.
How did you get started as a biographer, and what led you to Eglantine Jebb as a subject?
I am basically a nosey person and at the time I was working at the international development agency, Save the Children. I started wondering about the woman—the wonderfully named Eglantyne Jebb—who founded the organization in 1919, at the end of the First World War. When I went on maternity leave to have my first daughter (thereby showing far less commitment to the cause than Eglantyne, who never had children of her own, but dedicated her life to the charity) I found myself with not much to do, so I decided to poke around in the archives. I came across the most amazing stuff—far from being a maternal old lady selling raffle tickets to help poor innocents, Eglantyne was a beautiful, passionate woman who fell in love, wrote bad novels, talked to spirits, got herself arrested, chased the pope around the Vatican and won over the Bolshevik government, but who never particularly warmed to individual children, once referring to them as ‘the little wretches’.
Once I knew how fabulous her story was I realized I had to write about it, and Save the Children kindly put me in touch with the Jebb family who rather marvelously still raise funds for them. The last thing I wanted to do was to write a bad book, so I enrolled on a Social History MA at Birkbeck where I wrote every essay on Eglantyne until they refused to let me write my dissertation about her. It was wonderful training but took up a lot of time—it took me seven years to complete the book in between working, doing the MA and having three daughters.
Do you have a specific system for your research and writing?
I do have a system, and although it is not perfect, I have become more efficient. I start with chronologies, while annotating books and trying to work out what was happening in my subject’s life at that time. I file everything by source on my computer, and have paper files organized by chapter—the key is making sure I know exactly where every bit of info comes from. My sister once watched me laboriously cutting out strips of paper containing ideas for paragraphs, and sticking them down in different orders with sellotape, then cutting them up again and rearranging them. After an hour of this she said that surely Post-it notes must have been invented for this very job—and that alone must have saved me several hours for the second book.
What were the most interesting discoveries you came across while researching your books?
I like complicated difficult women and both Eglantyne and Christine were that. What I loved most about Eglantyne was the apparent irony that she was a woman who dedicated her life to promoting the welfare and rights of children, and yet she was ‘not fond’ she admitted, of them, individually. She wasn’t maternal or sentimental about children but she respected them and believed they should be party to human rights. She was remarkably successful at what she did—she won the first donation for her Save the Children fund from the crown prosecutor after her first arrest—but she was also very funny, with quite a black sense of humour, which saved her ‘from the philanthropicalness of most good ladies’, as one of her friends wrote. She certainly kept me laughing through my time writing the book—she’s a hugely inspirational person.
Christine was very different. She had the most astounding blunt courage. That she died young was perhaps unsurprising, but that she survived the war at all was remarkable. She served in three different theatres of war and at times had a life expectancy of just a few weeks. She passed money and information between the British and the Polish Resistance, she was arrested and brutally interrogated by the Nazis in Hungary, and she still volunteered to parachute into occupied France. She dodged machine-gun fire and busted British agents out of a Gestapo Prison. I called the book The Spy who Loved because Christine loved life in its greatest sense. She loved adrenalin and adventure, she loved men—she had two husbands and numerous lovers, and above all she loved freedom, both for her country and for herself.
Were you aware of writing for a particular audience? And did you ever worry that anything you might find out, or write about could upset people?
I have tried to write well-researched but not academic biographies—accessible, entertaining, informative history I guess, for anyone kind enough to invest the hours in reading them.
The love-life of both of my subjects has been subject to censor historically. Eglantyne’s most important relationship was with Margaret Keynes, the younger sister of the economist John Maynard Keynes. Although this was not previously public, the Jebb family gave me the women’s letters along with their blessing to publish what I thought right. Christine had many lovers, several of whom came together after her death—she was murdered by a jilted partner in 1952—to try to protect her reputation, preventing at least two books about her from being published. During my research the relatives of many of these men, including the killer, shared their knowledge with me to help me understand and write about the real woman.
I hope that both books are sensitive, honest and true. We are lucky to live in a less judgmental age than either Eglantyne (1876-1928) or Christine (1908-1952), and I am glad not to have had to wrestle with moral issues around disclosure.
One of the things that I was quite naïve about until we took the Birkbeck course was how political (I almost want to say cut-throat!) the world of biography-writing can be—especially when rival biographies are being written about the same subject—is this something you’ve had direct experience of whilst writing your books?
Yes. While writing about Eglantyne I heard there was a Canadian academic who was also looking at her. We swapped polite emails, and after both books were out we agreed to meet for coffee should we ever be in London at the same time. It is yet to happen.
How easy is it to get too close to your subject?
I think you have to get close. It is no good respecting personal space if you are writing a biography. But that does not mean you should worship, identify with or unduly expose your subject. I became quite obsessed with both Eglantyne and Christine, and I certainly had to stop and remember that no one is interested in the detail to the quite same degree as me, but it was knowing that detail that helped me to build up a better picture as a whole. If you mean emotionally close, for me it has been important to go through that too—and come out the other side. The biographer Richard Holmes says he believes that ‘the true biographical process begins precisely at the moment when this naïve form of love and identification breaks down. The moment of personal disillusionment is the moment of impersonal, objective recreation’. I think the idea is right. You need to get in close, and then step back.
It sounds as though you did some fantastic research for The Spy who Loved—including travelling to Poland—is there a particular highlight of your research that you can tell us about?
So much. The most dramatic moment happened when I was leaving the apartment where I was staying, in Warsaw’s Old Town, which had been lent to me by the son of one of Christine’s lovers, Count Wladimir Ledóchowski. Once on the street I found myself held up by a Gestapo officer, who pointed the perforated muzzle of his gun at me while shouting furiously in Polish. For a moment I wondered whether I had indeed got too close to my subject and slipped back in time. It turned out however that, not understanding the sign tacked on the door, I had walked into the middle of a Polish WWII TV film-shoot. I was still quite shaky ten minutes later, but it made me realize the extent of Christine’s sangfroid—she had been arrested twice in Europe during the war, and had kept her head, managing to talk her way out both times. I am not special-agent material, but very few people are.
The other highlight was finding a series of letters written to and by Christine that had never been published before. Researching the life of a special agent entails specific difficulties. Christine destroyed letters and kept secrets, and she told stories to protect herself—and for the fun of it—and many official records have been destroyed by accident or on purpose. There had previously only been a very few, much quoted, letters known of that were written by Christine. To find so many; talking not just about the war, but the qualities that she found attractive in men and her hopes for the future, was just wonderful. Suddenly she was a person, speaking from the heart, a woman we can relate to as well as the heroine we can admire.
The Spy Who Loved has had rave reviews throughout the mainstream press. What have been the highlights for you in terms of promoting the book?
It was pretty good being interviewed on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, and even better sitting in the BBC lobby afterwards knowing I had given it my best shot. The other thing has been meeting and comparing notes with other authors, and meeting people who have read the books and hearing what they think. For The Spy Who Loved the best thing has been receiving letters from the people I interviewed during my research who either knew Christine, or whose relatives knew her. Given that Christine was a very passionate woman, I worried a lot about what these people, who kindly shared their stories and family letters either over the phone or over sandwiches, would make of the book. I have had some suggestions to change a couple of minor points, but overwhelmingly the response has been good. Their feedback won’t be on the paperback cover, but for me it is the best praise of all.
For more information about Clare and her writing visit her website www.claremulley.com