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.
Sometimes it feels like we are going backwards. In the introduction of her “personal selection” of the 21 women who shaped the history of Britain, Jenni Murray reminds us that just over a year ago, in November 2015, it was announced that feminism would no longer be taught as part of the A Level Politics course. Instead, the suffragettes would be crowbarred into a section on pressure groups. There is some assumption that women have achieved total equality and that’s that. Let’s not talk about the past.
Except we haven’t. Recent events on the other side of the pond illustrate that all too starkly. Believe me, we need feminism more than ever.
Hurrah for Jenni Murray, who is brilliant on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, and is on brilliant form again in this book. She dedicates it to “all the young people who need to know”. It is exactly what it says on the tin: she’s chosen 21 notable women from British history and written short chapters on each, explaining why she believes them to have influenced the history of Britain. The selection spans most of history, opening with Boadicea (yes, she knows it’s now accepted to be Boudicca but she has stuck with the pronunciation she grew up with) and closing with the current First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon.
Selection for the book doesn’t mean she likes them. We’re looking at you, Margaret Thatcher. Murray makes no bones about the fact that she’s from Barnsley, the granddaughter of miners who spent their lives in the pits. The miners’ strike of 1984-5, then, was an exceptionally difficult time. Thatcher’s policies were, to put it mildly, extremely damaging. But however much one disagrees with Thatcher’s politics, surely no one can say that she didn’t influence British history. For good or bad is a separate issue.
But most of the women included in the book are much admired by Murray. All of British cultural life is here: politics, art, music, literature, and science are all covered. Elizabeth I sits side by side with Mary Quant. Mary Seacole is there, along with Jane Austen, Barbara Castle, and Gwen John. I think it’s an excellent, wide-ranging selection, and a good combination of women I already knew a fair bit about and a couple I am ashamed to say I had never heard of.
Each chapter is prefaced by a line drawing of the woman concerned and a quotation by or about them. (My favourite is the beginning of Sturgeon’s chapter: the Daily Mail calling her the most dangerous woman in Britain.) Some chapters are, admittedly, fuller than others. But that is understandable to an extent: Boadicea has a lot more already written about her than, say, Mary Quant. What makes the book charming throughout, though, is Murray’s own personal take on each woman. Her voice comes through beautifully, and I could hear it in my mind as I read. I actually wish I’d got the audiobook in some ways, as much as I enjoyed the illustrations in my print copy.
We need as many celebrations of women and their achievements as possible in these Interesting Times. I wish A History of Britain in 21 Women wasn’t as timely as it is.
Jenni Murray: A History of Britain in 21 Women (London: Oneworld, 2016). ISBN 978-1-78074-990-7. RRP £16.99