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Bishop's Stortford College Festival of Literature: Clare Mulley restores forgotten women to their rightful place in history

The hidden histories of women who changed the world are being told by author and broadcaster Clare Mulley.

Her investigations have earned her international recognition and the prospect of her work being turned into a Universal Studios production starring Angelina Jolie.

The Hollywood star has expressed an interest in playing Polish-born Countess Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, who was Britain's first and longest-serving female special agent of the Second World War.

Clare Mulley (26620849)
Clare Mulley (26620849)

Luton-born Clare has brought her story to life in The Spy Who Loved – and she said the title summed up her subject perfectly.

It riffs on Ian Fleming's James Bond, but as with her other subjects, the truth she uncovered was stranger than any 007 fiction.

Christine's espionage exploits prompted Winston Churchill to dub her his favourite spy. She was the first agent to make contact between the French resistance and Italian partisans, secured the defection of an entire German garrison and along the way she enjoyed a number of lovers.

Countess Krystyna Skarbek (26620847)
Countess Krystyna Skarbek (26620847)

Despite her derring-do, the Government abandoned her at the end of the war and she was reduced to working as a stewardess on a shipping line and a linen cupboard attendant at a hotel.

Her life ended at the age of just 44 when she was stabbed to death in the lobby of a South Kensington hotel by a suitor she had dared to reject.

The end was particularly harsh to research. In an archive, Clare was horrified to discover that while most of the pictures taken while action woman Christine was alive were blurred, the sharpest, clearest photographs she discovered were taken as part of the police investigation following her murder.

"They expected her to last six weeks as a spy and she served over six years, and then to have her life taken from her in such a brutal way just seven years into the peace... I was distressed to uncover that history."

The Spy Who Loved (26620855)
The Spy Who Loved (26620855)

Clare, who lives in Saffron Walden with her husband and three children, will use all her story-telling talent to bring Christine back to life for her audience at the Bishop's Stortford College Festival of Literature on Thursday, February 13 and give them an insight into her own motivation to "learn about a life I know I'm not going to live".

Her efforts in giving the countess the recognition she deserved during the Second World War earned Clare Poland's national honour, the Bene Merito, which she accepted as a tribute to Christine.

"I think it's just an incredible story," she said. "The book's called The Spy Who Loved because she was very passionate. She loved adventure and adrenaline… but above all she loved freedom.

The Woman Who Saved The Children (26620853)
The Woman Who Saved The Children (26620853)

"She wanted independence for her country, she wanted independence for Britain, her adopted country, and independence for all the Allies and freedom for herself. She was a woman very far ahead of her time."

Clare's own passion for the past is long established. She studied history and politics at Sheffield University before completing a masters at the University of London in social and cultural history.

But her interest in biographies and fleshing out the achievements of extraordinary females who are little more than footnotes in official archives was ignited when she worked for Save the Children at the end of the 1990s.

Research into the charity's founder, Eglantyne Jebb, confounded her expectations of a worthy woman dressed in brown who organised raffles.

In The Woman Who Saved the Children, which won the Daily Mail Biographers' Club Prize, she tells the story of an unconventional heroine who was arrested in Trafalgar Square in 1919. In the wake of the First World War, few were interested in helping the starving children of Britain's former enemies, but she was determined to make a difference. Ultimately, the social reformer drafted the document that became the Declaration of the Rights of the Child.

Clare said: "Women's stories don't tend to be written as much, and when they are told, people tend to focus on women's beauty and the romance of it."

At the time of the Suffragettes, Eglantyne was an Oxford-educated lesbian who defied such rose-tinted conventions about the role of women.

Clare's third book continues the theme of restoring the rightful place in history of extraordinary women.

The Women Who Flew For Hitler (26620858)
The Women Who Flew For Hitler (26620858)

The Women Who Flew for Hitler revisits the story of arch-Nazi Hannah Reitsch. She was the first woman to fly a helicopter, tested rocket planes and even flew a manned version of a prototype cruise missile – the V1 flying bomb or doodlebug.

She is notorious for her efforts to save Hitler at the end of the war, begging him to flee his bunker, and her aeronautical skills fuelled conspiracy theories that he fled to South America.

During her life, she tried to erase the story of Melitta von Stauffenberg, test pilot for the Stuka dive bombers synonymous with the Blitzkrieg.

She had Jewish heritage and in July 1944 she was part of one of history's most infamous incidents – the attempt to kill Adolf Hitler – yet she had been almost totally forgotten.

The pair's exploits almost defied belief. Clare said: "If I had written it as a novel, everyone would have said it was made up."

Melitta was judged to be of so little consequence in such momentous events that her diary was sent back to her family. When finally her sister Klara tried to write an account of her exploits in the 1970s, Hannah issued threats and stopped publication.

Clare saw the intimidating correspondence and said: "So it was great to be finally able to tell the truthful story. Hannah tried to save Hitler's life and could have flown him out. Melitta tried to kill him."

Her work has been made easier by the written records which still exist and a network of friends and fellow historians who have helped her to unearth the archives.

The advent of the internet and social media, she said, would present new challenges for biographers in the future as they sort fake news from facts to tell similar stories.

As well as an author, Clare is a gamekeeper turned poacher as a highly-regarded reviewer of non-fiction for The Daily Telegraph, The Spectator and History Today, and an accomplished public speaker who has given a TEDx talk at Stormont, the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and spoken at the Houses of Parliament, Royal Albert Hall, Imperial War Museum, National Army Museum and British Library, as well as many festivals.

Her recent TV appearances include BBC's Rise of the Nazis and the D-Day 75 coverage, Newsnight, David Jason's Secret Service and Adolf & Eva, Love & War.

* Tickets to hear Clare Mulley at Bishop's Stortford College Festival of Literature on Thursday, February 13 from 7.30pm cost £8 (£5.50 for ages 14 to 18). You can book online.

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