Radio Girls by Sarah- Jane Stratford – An historical novel with biographies of some fascinating women

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This is fictional account of an exciting time in British history, specifically the new but ground breaking BBC. It is more than a historical novel, as it largely deals with the role of women in the BBC through the eyes of an American girl, drawn into the orbit of Hilda Matheson. The setting of a country going through nervous times as it recovers from one war and begins to feel the tensions which will build to another gives an authentic feel of 1926. A fictional character becomes the way in which the early BBC is examined and class issues are explored, especially in relation to the changing expectations of women. This accomplished novel is a well written, engaging read for those interested in the social history of the time, and the characters who dominated the worlds of politics and literature.

Maisie Musgrave is a girl with something of a past, but keen to make a new future. Daughter of actress, Georgina, she was born in Canada but grew up in New York. After a stint of nursing in at the end of the First World War, she has trained as a secretary but has found it difficult to get work in London. At last she gets a job in the BBC, assisting in both the offices of John Reith and Hilda Matheson. Reith is a firm and frightening man, determined to preserve the status quo despite the changes and challenges of broadcasting which is increasing in popularity. Matheson is a challenging woman who is actively seeking to use the “Talks” to promote change in the sort of programme offered to the early listeners to radio. She knows the women and some men who are making a difference in politics such as Lady Astor, and those who are changing the face of literature such as Vita Sackville West. As Maisie becomes more involved with the dynamic world opening out to her, her ambitions change. All is far from plain sailing however, as there are those both within the BBC and out who are determined to adapt the world to their views and interests.

Looked at objectively, this book sets itself high targets and hits most of them. The shadow of the “Great War” is still present, as is the fight for women to get the vote. Women are discriminated against even in a new organisation, but there are signs of change as they begin to get more choices. Maisie is unbelievably talented, but her naivety is a little overdone. I really felt for her as a character, however, as she learns to fight battles she never dreamt of to maintain her role and achieve her ambitions. The fictionalised portrait of Hilda Matheson is very interesting, and made me keen to find out more about this very real woman who fought battles on many fronts. The only really annoying aspect of this book is the anachronistic speech; phrases like “on trend” are rather startling coming from a 1920s character and reveal perhaps a lack of editing. Otherwise the research seems impeccable and never too heavily used; I learnt a lot about the period and some of the characters. This is a readable book and I recommend it as a book to enjoy while soaking up some of the history of both the BBC and life for a woman in 1920s London.

This is a book that I actually tracked down in a branch of Works, but I have seen it in many bookshops since. I think that the cover lets it down a little; it is far more than a ‘girl makes good against the odds’ book. It achieves far more.

This coming week preparations continue for a book sale next weekend. Held in the church hall at the end of our drive, it will feature hundreds of books. Guess who will be there…