Over the course of this project I have been reading through a comprehensive biography on both Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker, Elsie and Mairi Go To War, which I got on our earlier library field trip. So, the first person I thought of to contact for an interview for my project was, you guessed it, the author of the book!
I found the author, Diane Atkinson’s, website online and was able to contact her using the information email posted on her site. I was very excited when she replied the next day! Diane has “a PhD on the politics of women’s sweated labour” and an MA on Life Writing. She also worked at the Museum of London “as a lecturer and curator specializing in women’s history.” These qualifications were noted in the author’s biography in the back of the book. She has been the author of three other acclaimed novels that give light on various women’s issues and rights one of which was made into a documentary film in 2008. She published her book on the two nurses in 2009 which drew much attention to their miraculous war efforts. With the help of a highly interested reader, they were able to fundraise enough to have a life-size bronze sculpture made and displayed in Ypres, ten miles from Pervyse, where Elsie and Mairi had treated soldiers in their cellar. The statue was unveiled just last year on November 22nd, 2014, exactly one hundred years after they started giving soldiers what was and still is known as ‘golden-hour treatment’ at Pervyse. This treatment was the basic first aid given to the wounded within the first hour of a serious injury or traumatic incident when it was most likely to prevent death. The rising of this statue was a great success in their story and recognition as it was long overdue for the work they did and lives they saved, and their lives they devoted to their time in Belgium. The statue also includes their terrier Shot, who saved their lives by barking to wake them during a gas attack. Unfortunately, he died in his heroism, but he was always a huge part of Elsie and Mairi’s daily life in Pervyse.
Follow this link to Diane’s very interesting page on her website about the statue ceremony.
So on to the interview. As I earlier stated, I found Diane’s email on her author website and sent her an email explaining who I am and what I am doing. She replied and was glad to hear that I was reading and enjoying her book. She said would be willing to answer some questions via email, as of course, we live a few time zones apart and not exactly within driving distance. I then sent her another email with some questions that I hoped were thoughtful and she might be able to give me a new perspective on. Below I have listed my questions and her responses.
- What inspired you to write the book on these two women? Or what did you enjoy about writing it?I saw a photograph of two women titled The Madonnas of Pervyse and was intrigued by the image and the caption and was curious to find out who they were and what it meant. I was delighted to read their diaries and correspondence and build up a picture of them and their extraordinary work which demonstrated their outstanding courage and compassion.
- What was something that surprised you in your research about them?
I wasn’t surprised about anything I discovered about them – they were extraordinary people.
- How do you think Elsie Knocker impacted Mairi’s life and vise versa, Mairi to Elsie?
This is well covered in the book, but remember Elsie was older and more experienced than Mairi who had just left school when they met motorbiking. I think Elsie needed the calmness of Mairi’s gentle spirit to keep going through all the difficult times. They were a very good team.
- What would you say was the biggest challenge or obstacle for Mairi to be able to do what she did, either before or during?Her mother’s objection to her having a motorbike and then going to Belgium was serious issue but her father was very supportive. This caused friction all through the war and after I am sure.
How do you think these two women, or specifically Mairi Chisholm, impacted women’s history, rights, or involvement in social issues, events, or crises?
We can’t make this assessment yet – their story is still not widely known. My book came out in 2009 and it will take time for them to become more widely appreciated. The statue I raised the money for in Ypres is a big boost to wider awareness but these things take time.
- Thanks to your book I was able to locate the amazing online resources of the Imperial War Museum, including the audio of an interview with Mairi Chisholm herself that you mention in your book. Is there any other resources that you would suggest I look into during my research?
Almost all the material on them is held either at the IWM or the National Library of Scotland.
- Why are you passionate about spreading the knowledge of what Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm did during the war and their contributions?
I think the reasons are evident in the book. E and M were outstandingly courageous and caring – remember they did all of that unpaid, spent all their savings doing it and risked their lives on a daily basis, were nearly killed on several occasions. Everyone needs to know about what they did and be inspired by them.
I sent her another email after receiving her answers thanking her for her assistance in my project and her work on the book and getting Elsie and Mairi recognized in general.
Through this interview she pointed a couple new and different points that I hadn’t thought of and also helped to clarify a couple of things regarding the two. Her book has also helped me greatly in my research as it includes some sources, as also mentioned in the interview, that contain invaluable materials such as an audio interview with Mairi Chisholm herself. For this I also thanked her in my emails.
Diane has helped me to understand what phenomenal women Elsie and Mairi were and I hope that I can show that through my performance on the Night of the Notables and also at my learning centre. Some main points like the fact that they did it all without profit really put it into terms for me.
I am honoured to have received such a valid opinion on my eminent person and to have been exposed to such great resources. Thank you to Diane Atkinson again for your amazing assistance in my project and for your efforts towards getting Elsie and Mairi recognized for the truly outstanding women that they were. I will do my best to represent them well!