Monday, 28 December 2020

Behind the Scenes: Catherine Booth by David Bennett

Today we go 'behind the scenes' as Jeanette (Jenny) O'Hagan interviews David Malcolm Bennett about his recent release of his biography, Catherine Booth: From Timidity to Boldness.

Jenny: Congratulations on your recent release, David. What inspired you to write Catherine Booth: From Timidity to Boldness?

David: It’s a long story Jenny, so I’ll just give the highlights. Our family church in London was close to Chalk Farm Salvation Army, which had a magnificent band that often paraded round the streets, with a string of children following. That impressed me. My working-class mum and dad had a great admiration for the Salvos, which I came to share. I originally wrote a small biography of Catherine’s husband William. Then some years later I wrote a two-volume biography of William Booth. I also transcribed, edited, and published the letters that they wrote to each other (and please believe me there are many of them), plus Catherine’s diary and reminiscences. Then years later I transcribed, edited, and published the letters that Catherine had written to her parents. At that stage, I had no intention of writing a biography of Catherine. I was preparing the tools for someone else to do it. But when that work was completed, I said to a Salvation Army friend “The background material is now all to hand, so it is time for someone to write a good biography of Catherine Booth.” He said, “You should do it.” So, I did. (Hopefully, it is “good”.)

Jenny: Can you tell us three less known facts about Catherine Booth?

David: She was a poor speller, and her punctuation was hopeless, but she was a powerful writer. Strange, isn’t it? When she felt passionately about a subject, say, women’s issues, evangelism, or the importance of the family, in writing or speaking she was brilliant. Powerful!

She and William had eight children, but they adopted two more, despite her (their) extremely busy lifestyle.

Middle class and wealthy people loved her, even though she spoke very boldly to them, and could be quite fierce in her denunciation of the wickedness of the rich.

Jenny: You recently edited an extensive collection of Catherine’s letters and have been involved in editing another collection of Booth letters. What other sources did you use for your biography and how did you combine them with what you learnt from the letters?

David: Yes, as I said above, I have had the privilege of transcribing the letters Catherine and William wrote to each other, Catherine’s diary and reminiscences, and Catherine’s letters to her parents, which, of course, gave me many valuable insights into Catherine’s life and personality. It is also now possible to get online access to many nineteenth century newspapers and magazines, including Methodist and Salvation Army publications, and even birth and marriage certificates. (The Booths were originally Methodists, hence the value of the Methodist mags.) These gave extra information, but they were also useful in checking and finding dates and discovering different opinions. It’s all very well finding out what the Booths said about an event, but what did others say? Listen to both sides of an argument (or event).    

Jenny: You’ve written an impressive number of biographies and theological books over the years. How did you get started as a writer and what keeps you going?

David: I was brought up to read and love books, and I was a bookseller for many years in England and Australia. This gave me a taste for writing. I read many wonderful books, but to be frank, some I read were poor, and the wicked thought came to me, “I could do better than that.” So I tried. Whether I have succeeded, others must judge. What keeps me going? I am nearly 79, and I am well aware that the party has to end sometime. But, I suppose, I am just passionate about writing on Christian issues. I love it. And it is easy to do things one loves. 

Jenny: Any tips on how to approach writing a biography or historical work?

David: I think with non-fiction history and biography you need to first have a passion about, or at least a deep interest in, a subject before you start to write about it. This assumes that you already know something about your subject. Also remember that because it is non-fiction doesn’t mean it’s meant to be boring. Non-fiction, even history (indeed, especially history) can be exciting. Present it that way.

I write two kinds of biographies. The first is what I call “dramatic”. These are usually fairly brief: 50,000 words perhaps.  With these I usually begin with an exciting incident in the character’s life, and then go back to talk about their birth and childhood. It is a strategy to get the reader’s attention. Draw them in with something exciting. In my biography of John Wesley, I begin with an account about when his home was burning around him and he had to be dramatically rescued. I then go back to tell of his family (more dramatic than you would expect) and his birth. After that I concentrate mainly, but not entirely, upon the exciting and the dramatic.

The other kind of biography that I write is more detailed, quotes a wider range of sources, and has footnotes, a bibliography and an index. While not ignoring the exciting (never ignore the exciting), with these I seek to present a fuller and more detailed account of the person’s life. My new book about Catherine Booth fits into this category and is the first of two volumes. I have tried to present the authentic Catherine Booth, something which I don’t think has been done before. Most of the earlier books about her have been “too adoring”. I have not rubbished her, but I have presented a “warts and all” account of her early life. 

With regard to historical research, bear in mind that not everything you read is true. With experience, you begin to get to know which authors write honestly and who is fudging the truth. And some things don’t quite add up; don’t sound right. So be careful. I usually like at least two seemingly independent accounts of an event before I regard it as true. (Isn’t it great that there are five contemporary and, at least partly, independent accounts of our Lord’s resurrection?) If I can’t find two independent accounts that say the same, or more-or-less the same, I would usually say, something like, “some say, …, while others say”. However, I remember finding two similar accounts of one event that I was thinking of quoting as authentic. Then I discovered that document “B” was quoting document “A”, so I was back down to one. I have only ever quoted that matter with caution. 

One last thing: avoid Wikipedia, or at least use it with extreme caution. Some of the articles are rubbish.

Jenny: Catherine Booth: From Timidity to Boldness, is book 1. What can we expect in the second book on Catherine? And will there be any more books after that?

David: Volume 1 takes Catherine Booth’s life from her birth in 1829 to 1865 when her husband began the Mission that became the Salvation Army. These were, mainly, her Methodist years, some of which were extraordinarily dramatic, and I found them exciting to write, so I hope they are exciting to read. Volume 2, “Catherine Booth: From Boldness to Glory”, will cover the years 1866 to her death in 1890. These are The Salvation Army years, though that Army was originally a mission led by William, and it did not become The Salvation Army until 1878. Catherine had considerable influence upon the development of that Mission/Army, making sure that women were regarded as equal to men, with rights to vote at meetings, and that suitable women were allowed to preach and lead Mission stations. Indeed, the work that some of these women did was remarkable and heroic. Catherine developed into a major and influential preacher and lecturer, and became the darling of the rich, who attended her lectures in London’s West End in the early 1880s. As with the first volume, I allow her to speak. I hope that volume 2, almost completed, will be published at the end of 2021.

After that … I don’t know.

Jenny: Thanks for giving us a peek behind the scenes, David. I'm looking forward to reading Catherine Booth's story and whatever book comes after.

David Malcolm Bennett has written over 20 Christian books, mainly biographies and church history. His book “From Ashes to Glory” was a joint winner in the CALEB AWARDS, biography section, and his “William Booth and his Salvation Army” was a finalist in CALEB. That book about William Booth has sold over 25,000 copies in its three editions, English, American and Australian. His book “Hudson Taylor and China” is a finalist in this year’s CALEB. His latest book Catherine Booth: From Timidity to Boldness was published in 2020.

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