Charlotte Despard (1844–1939)

Author of Life, death--and what then?

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Charlotte Despard, née French, was the daughter of John William French, an Irish naval officer, and his wife Margaret. Her older brother was the famous World War I British military commander John French, later 1st Earl of Ypres and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Because of her mother's mental illness, Charlotte was raised by relatives in London, where she attended finishing school. In 1870, she married Maximilien Despard, a wealthy Anglo-Irish businessman, and began writing with his encouragement. Charlotte Despard's first novel, Chaste as Ice, Pure as Snow, was published in 1874, and she went on to write another 10 novels over 16 years. After her husband’s death in 1890, Charlotte decided to devote the rest of her life to charitable causes. She converted to Roman Catholicism and moved into a poor quarter of London. She funded and staffed a health clinic, men's and youth clubs, and soup kitchens. She was elected as a Poor Law Guardian in the Lambeth district of London, and became involved in the campaign to reform the Poor Law system. Through her work, she got to know trade union leaders and Keir Hardie, the leader of the Labour Party. In 1906, she joined the Women's Social and Political Union aimed at gaining the vote for women. In October 1906, she was arrested with Mary Gawthorpe during a protest at the House of Commons, and in 1907 she was imprisoned twice for her suffrage activities. Mrs. Despard also spent a lot of time in Ireland and in 1908 she joined with Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Margaret Cousins to form the Irish Women's Franchise League. In 1909, Mrs. Despard met Mahatma Gandhi and was influenced by his theory of nonviolent resistance. She campaigned publicly against war, a tremendous embarrassment to her brother. In the 1920s, Mrs. Despard became increasingly involved with the struggle for Irish independence and moved to Dublin, where she became a friend of Maud Gonne and a supporter of Sinn Fein. She also toured the Soviet Union and later joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. She spoke at anti-fascist rallies in her old age.
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