Clare Mulley lives in Essex and works as a biographer, broadcaster and speaker. She has appeared on Newsnight, the Today programme and Women’s Hour among several other news and history series and specials. Before turning to writing, she worked for Save the Children and Sight Savers International.
Clare has written three non-fiction books: The Woman Who Saved the Children, about Save the Children founder Eglantyne Jebb, The Spy Who Loved, about Krystyna Starbek, aka Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of the Second World War, and The Women Who Flew for Hitler, about Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg, who fought convention to make their names in the male-dominated field of flight in 1930s Germany.
1. Who were your early literary influences, and when did you develop your interest in history?
I have always loved history. I love getting lost in a novel, but knowing a story actually happened has always made it more compelling for me. Of course history books are always slanted, and arguably writing fiction may release an author to explore different ‘truths’… but I am also fascinated by the way history is written and rewritten, with published histories often revealing as much about the times and preoccupations of their author as they do about the history they explore.
2. As a biographer, you have been drawn to some remarkable women. How do you decide who your subjects are going to be?
I want to tell stories that I feel are important, and that have either been forgotten or have not been told in a way that does justice to the subject. I would be delighted to write about men, but there is a rich seam of women’s stories that meet this criteria, and I feel should be better known. Often researching one story will lead in an unexpected direction, which is always fascinating. I’m always pleased to hear from people who have suggestions for future subjects!
3. David Hare’s Plenty was written after he discovered that 75% of the women engaged in wartime SOE operations divorced in the immediate post-war years. Do you think some women are uniquely suited to the demands of wartime? I’m thinking of Krystyna Skarbek/Christine Granville’s heroism?
The demands of war are varied. Traditionally men have served in the frontline of conflict, while women have played a vital role on the home front, including working in fields and factories, taking care of businesses and families, and serving in many supporting roles in the wider military structure. All of this should be remembered.
However, there are also examples of women actively fighting in most wars through history, sometimes dressed as men, sometimes serving defiantly as women. War is fascinating for me as a historian, partly because it often enables women to find a role denied them in peacetime. It is not so much that few women are qualified to serve, but that so few have had the opportunity.
Krystyna Skarbek was the first woman to serve Britain as a special agent in the Second World War, and the longest serving British agent, male or female, in that conflict. Female special agents, or women in the resistance more broadly, still tend to be presented in rather romantic terms, sometimes as ‘honeytraps’, and celebrated for their beauty, bravery and sacrifice, rather then their achievements. However, their greatest asset was usually not their unique skills in seduction, but simply their ability to be overlooked. This enabled women to risk moving documents, heavy wireless transmitters and weapons, where able-bodied men would immediately be suspect.
Skarbek, however, was not satisfied by smuggling vital information, such as microfilm hidden inside her leather gloves, across borders, and went on to make the first contact between the French resistance and the Italian partisans in the Alps, secure the defection of an entire German garrison on a strategic pass, and save the lives of many of her male colleagues - sometimes putting her own life on the line to do so. She was one of several notable female agents, including Virginia Hall and Pearl Witherington, who stand out for their personal contribution to the Allied war effort.
4. In The Women who Flew for Hitler, you introduce your readers to Melitta von Stauffenberg and give her a proper place in history. Is it more challenging to research characters who are less well known?
Researching better and lesser known people both have their own challenges. The more of a name someone has, the more traces there tend to be in the record. These stories have often already been told, but not always well. It is harder to get a publisher interested in someone not well known, and sometimes more difficult to find the information, but at least you start with a blank state.
The Women Who Flew for Hitler focuses on the extraordinary twin stories of the only two women to serve the Nazi regime as test pilots. Hanna Reitsch is by far the better known, yet thrillingly it turned out there were still stories to be uncovered. A remarkable natural pilot, Hanna was the first woman to fly a helicopter, and ended up testing the famous Komet rocket plane, and even a manned version of the V1, known over here as the doodlebug or buzz bomb - in effect a prototype cruise missile. I thought her story was so well recorded there might be little new to learn, but I not only found new details, such as that she was terrified of mice, but also previously unseen personal letters showing that she was a fanatical and unrepentant Nazi to the end.
Melitta Schiller von Stauffenberg was Hanna’s nemesis. Not only a brilliant pilot and the only female aeronautical engineer in Nazi Germany, Melitta was also part Jewish, and had a very different perspective on the regime. Her story was almost lost, partly because Hanna ensured that a planned biography of Melitta was never written, but also simply because she was a woman and so her papers have not found their way into the main archives. I was lucky enough to interview various nieces and nephews who remembered her well. However, for me the most remarkable moment was reading Melitta’s handwritten 1944 diary, evidence that she was involved in the most famous attempt on Hitler’s life!
5. Is there anything you can share with us about your latest project?
I have two new book ideas in mind, and am just finishing a proposal for the first of them - so fingers crossed that publishers will be interested please! All I can say is that both again look at women involved in or responding to conflict, and both involve plenty of drama and intrigue, but they could hardly be more different in the way the stories would be framed.
6. What is on your ‘to read’ pile at the moment?
Lots of research books for the above-mentioned proposals, and a couple of books to review. Also George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, two novels I feel I should have read long ago and that have nothing to do with my usual subject area… perfect!
7. Do you have a message for your many readers in Suffolk Libraries?
Thank you very much for borrowing my books… I hope you enjoyed them, and thank you for supporting your local library!
I am a huge library user, and love the British Library where I work far more effectively than when at home with the wonderful distractions of life around me. This year I was delighted that the House of Commons and House of Lords libraries both included one of my books in their collections. My favourite library, however, is probably the town library in Saffron Walden where I live, which has a wonderful old book collection from the town’s Quaker past, as well as being a busy and ever helpful community hub today.
8. You are one of the speakers at the Lavenham Literary Festival. Can you give us a small taste of what to expect?
I am delighted to be returning to beautiful Lavenham to talk about the remarkable Eglantyne Jebb, the courageous, passionate and compassionate woman who founded Save the Children 100 years ago this year, after a dramatic run-in with the law and a court case that hit the front pages of the national press!
The pioneering Eglantyne shocked many in her day, not just by studying for a degree, riding bicycles and writing romantic fiction, but also by admitting she didn’t much care for individual children, travelling into a war zone, and taking on the British government. On the way, she won over factory girls and the aristocracy, the wife of the British PM and even the Bolshevik government! Ultimately Eglantyne changed the world forever, yet she is almost forgotten today.
This was the first book I wrote, which won the Daily Mail Biographers Club Prize. It has just been reissued to mark the charity’s centenary, and this spring Joely Richardson and Helena Bonham Carter acted out some of Eglantyne’s dramatic life story from the book as a one-off fundraiser for the charity. All the book’s royalties are also donated to Save the Children.
It should be a great event - do join me!