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The Woman Who Saved Children

Author: Clare Mulley

Publisher: Oneworld

ISBN: Mick Yates

Summary:Eglantyne was the founder of Save the Children, and the author of what became known as the United Nations Rights of the Child.

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ISBN 978 1851686575

As I've also written a short biography of Eglantyne's life from the perspective of her leadership ability, I approached this volume with particular interest.

In fact, Clare Mulley does a great job, and the book is an enthralling read. It is a well researched and interesting biography about one of a great social change agents of the 20th century. Yet few people today even know Eglantyne's name.

Eglantyne had a very sheltered and rather privileged (albeit intellectually stimulating) upbringing. She was challenged to think for herself, in a liberal family environment where "doing the right thing" was the rule. Yet she always had a rather independent streak. An earlier biography refers to her as the "Rebel Daughter of A Country House". 

As Mulley points out, Eglantyne got involved in many activities - writing, newsletters, good causes and more - and it sometimes feels that she couldn't really make her mind up on things.Yet she went on to found Save the Children, now the world's largest independent body serving the interests of children across the globe. And she secured the agreement of the League of Nations to a declaration of Children's Rights which later became the United Nations "Convention on the Rights of the Child" - the UN charter agreed by more Countries than any other.

Along the way Eglantyne defied public opinion (even getting arrested for publc disorder - although she managed to get a donation from a judge), helped develop many of the scientific methods aid agencies use today, and overcame generally poor health. Eglantyne founded Save the Children with her sister Dorothy Buxton in response to the famine in Austria after the First World War. The launch of the campaign to raise money for children in "enemy" countries - especially when there was still such obvious need at home - was courageous. She won huge public support, as well as the backing of celebrities such as George Bernard Shaw. She wrote "I have no enemies under the age of seven".

Mulley meticulously researches Eglantyne's life, with real depth using a wide range of original source material. Yet she has written a book that reads rather like a novel. It is the story of a young woman searching for a cause, and in some ways also searching for her own soul. In her younger life, Eglantyne rarely gave the impression that she had an over-arching cause, and, although at one time she was a teacher, it seems that she was not exactly a fan of children.

"The value of my work is nil," she wrote. "I have none of the qualities of a teacher."

Eglantyne's impact on children's rights is undeniable, and Mulley does her story proud. Still, I found the personal side of Eglantyne's story the most fascinating. She was deeply in love with Marcus, yet he walked away from her. And then Eglantyne had an increasingly intense affair with Margaret, the beautiful young sister of Maynard Keynes, the economist. "Intense" relationships between women were a generally accepted part of society (unlike male homosexual relationships), and it seems clear that Eglantyne never really found a true love who would stay with her.

If I have a critique of Mulley’s book, it would be that I would have like to have seen more exploration of exactly how Eglantyne set up and inspired Save the Children – the high street stores, the scientific approach to field development programs and the sheer professionalism of the activity. In so many ways Save the Children has defined the modern NGO, and that all started with Eglantyne.

Even so, check out the book – you’ll enjoy it.