Richard Holloway’s book On Forgiveness ends by relating Winston Churchill’s reaction at the end of World War 1, which was to propose rushing a dozen ships crammed with provisions to aid the fallen foe. This proposal was coldly rejected. Holloway goes on to describe the reaction of a German soldier who, appalled at the lack of mercy shown to his broken country, resolved to go into politics.
The play Eglantyne begins in a similar vein: we see the eponymous character handing out leaflets in Trafalgar Square in 1919, demanding that the starving children of Austria and Germany be sent food. Unfortunately, the leaflets weren’t approved under the Defence of the Realm act; Eglantyne Jebb was arrested for being a troublemaker and fined £5. This simply strengthened this woman’s resolve to save the children of Europe.
We then hear not only from Miss Jebb, but also (one suspects) the writer/performer herself – Anne Chamberlain – who slips from the near-perfect received pronunciation of her character into her natural New Zealand accent, finding parallels with her own life, and providing retrospective commentary. The writing feels like a labour of love, and Chamberlain has clearly researched her historical character meticulously.
We next learn about Eglantyne’s Shropshire childhood, her family – in particular her sister Dorothy – her Oxford Education and her disastrous attempt to become a teacher. Her family, though pretty well-heeled, is not free from death and tragedy, and Eglantyne herself suffers from terrible physical and mental ill-health. She is also wholly unlucky in love.
Nevertheless, she is well-connected (the play is packed with name-dropping from the Bloomsbury Set to The Pope) and her passionate need for a purpose – “I have to contribute,” she cries out in anguish – not only gets her through the heartache, but paves the way for massive historical social change.
There is still more backstory to come – perhaps a little too much – although the pace is well-driven, and a good mix of epistolary devices, simple props, un-fussy staging, and engaging storytelling keep us wanting to know the play’s main event.
In Cambridge, Eglantyne (whose name, aptly, means prickly briar rose) works for a Charities Organisation Committee, and commissions a digest of charitable work, asking what causes poverty. The answers include race, religion, politics, and prejudice, but above all, war. “War is the real enemy,” she tells us, “not the people.”
Along with fighting for women’s suffrage, Eglantyne becomes involved in further charity work and endless campaigning until we reach the crux of the drama: with her sister, she sets up Save the Children. Furthermore, in a vision worthy of Moses on Mount Sinai, she thought up an idea called ‘a Declaration of the Rights of the Child.’ This eventually evolved into the current United Nations Convention, adopted in 1989.
While she was surely one of the most influential women of the 20th century, it is strange that she is far-less remembered than, say, a certain prickly politician known as Maggie. Or that soldier-turned-politician I mentioned at the top of this review, whose name was Adolf.
It seems sad that we remember the monsters, but not so much the prophets of the past. As the Save the Children slogan puts it, Humanity owes the child the best it has to give.