Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Stoker: The Life of Hilda Matheson, OBE

If you are keen on Bloomsbury and its ramifications, you may already know that Hilda Matheson (1888-1940) was Vita Sackville West’s lover between 1929 and 1931. She wrote to Vita incessantly, and 800 pages of her letters are held by the Nicolson family, lavishly used here in Michael Carney’s biography. If you are interested in the history of women working for the BBC, you may already know that Hilda Matheson, formerly of MI6 in the First World War and Nancy’s Astor political secretary, was the BBC’s first Director of Talks, and a pioneer of radio broadcasting for the masses, in the teeth of Lord Reith’s rigid views.  Adding these roles together, with powerful editing and Ministry of Information jobs during the Second World War, should have made Hilda Matheson a figure much more widely known than she is. She was a builder of systems and a specialist in the kind of detail that is ephemeral, disappearing in the ether after the end of a broadcast, or buried in bibliographies and confidential reports.

Hilda Matheson by Howard Coster, bromide print, 1920s copyright the National Portrait Gallery

Hilda Matheson by Howard Coster, bromide print, 1920s copyright the National Portrait Gallery

Michael Carney published this biography himself in 1999, and it sank without trace. I found it in one of the two very good Dingwall second-hand bookshops, with an ex libris stamp from Dornoch, so I am indebted to the previous owner in Sutherland who had the good taste to share my interests. Matheson was a passionate and articulate writer, of reports and letters, and, despite Carney’s careful skirting around her domineering style, I think she would have been a fascinating person to know. Read this biography for BBC history, for the social history of how women found jobs in the interwar years, and for Matheson’s resonant writing defending lesbianism as a state of being she was proud of, not a choice to hide. Her struggles through the deadly workload at the BBC (which included a lot of sitting around in evening dress as a radio talks producer during live broadcasts), and her desperation to keep Vita’s attention, made me very sympathetic, but also a little exasperated. This poor woman suffered from emotional ups and downs (exacerbated by a thyroid problem that killed her), and was also a lonely feminist battling for professional rights at the top of the BBC tree. Lord Reith comes across as a monster in this biography, but I think this is general knowledge, so Carney’s efforts to keep an even balance of opinion on the subject are admirable.

His assessment of Matheson’s last two years at the BBC up to 1931, when she was pretty much drowning in ill-will and overwork, says as much as anyone can of how some people can struggle in vain when the times are against them. ‘In weighing up how far the anger of her peers was a righteous response to a presumptuous and difficult woman, and how far it was a jealous reaction of men not yet used to women in positions of power, one cannot avoid the conclusion that her main effect was not to know her place in a man’s world.’

Virginia Woolf hated her, but then she would, wouldn’t she? ‘She affects me as a strong purge, as a hair shirt, as a foggy day, as a cold in the head’. Such tremendous quotations litter this good biography, and bring a truly absorbing period and person back to life.

Michael Carney, Stoker. The Life of Hilda Matheson, OBE, 1888-1940, privately published 1999, ISBN 0 9536391 0 X

Kate babbles about books at twice weekly.

About Kate

Writer, reviewer, literary historian and publisher at Also a Bath Quaker.

4 comments on “Stoker: The Life of Hilda Matheson, OBE

  1. Jackie
    September 28, 2016

    This sounds like a good biography of a fascinating person, a woman definitely ahead of her time. It seems like the UK has a history of hiding the accomplishments of gay and lesbian people from that time, I am reminded of Alan Turing, for example.
    I wondered why Ms. Matheson died at a relatively young age and you’ve answered the question here. Was it a condition that had no treatment in that era?
    I really ought to read a factual book on Ms. Matheson’s life after the novel about her years at the BBC, “Radio Girls” by Jane Stratford.

  2. Kate
    September 29, 2016

    Glad you are intrigued! She died during an operation on her thyroid, during the war.

  3. Cheryl Dunlop
    November 1, 2017

    I would love to read this biography of Hilda Matheson! I’m quite certain she was a fascinating woman, living and working and loving during a fascinating time. But as you noted, this book is nearly impossible to find. But I’m determined to get hold of a copy.

    Thank you for an interesting and insightful discussion!

  4. Pingback: Radio Girls: review | This is my symphony

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