‘A History of Britain in 21 Women’ by Jenni Murray

#TBRChallenge hosted by Wendy @The Misadventures of Super Librarian

This book has been lurking in my TBR pile for a while, I think – it was a Christmas present a few years ago and I just didn’t feel like picking it up at the time. My birthday is close enough to Christmas, and everyone in my life seems to think that books are a good present for me, so that’s not meant to be a slight; this book was one of at least 20 I was given in the space of a few weeks and there are still a few more I haven’t got round to.

All things considered, I’m not sure this was the best I could have grabbed. It’s a nice enough concept – or at least it feels very worthy, examining some British women who made their mark on history and were often overlooked – but it’s not particularly entertaining. ‘A History of Britain in 21 Women’ sets out to define Britain “by its women” with a series of 21 short vignettes discussing the lives of 21 influential women, amongst them Emmeline Pankhurst, Mary Seacole and Margaret Thatcher, occasionally interrupted by little asides from Murray about how she first saw the statue in their honour or related to a woman’s medical history or so on.

Although some reviewers seemed to enjoy the structure of the book, with a few reviewers talking about how these short vignettes make it seem like a conversation or dinner party between the women. They don’t; there is no real interplay between the different women and very little attempt to draw connections or comparisons between the vignettes, so all that’s left is a certain ironic tinge at having Thatcher and Constance Markievicz (the first woman ever elected as an MP but who, as a member of Sinn Féin, followed their abstentionist policy and therefore never took her seat in Westminster) grouped together in this way. And that’s not an irony that I think Murray seems to be trying to evoke, either, each of the vignettes feels as though it is meant to stand alone, with the only common thread being Murray’s view of the individual woman. That’s fine, but each individual vignette is too short to be more than a brief gloss over some key facts, often with parts of their life elided – Queen Elizabeth I, for one, seems to favour talking about her relationships and virginity more than it does the Elizabethan Settlement, which had some fairly major ramifications for the church and for the world beyond Britain. It’s not enough depth to be really interesting, especially with the well-known figures where Murray doesn’t really bring any new information or analysis to the table, and Murray’s reflections on her personal connections to many of these figures and their significance in her own life are too sparse to be particularly compelling. There were women in there who are less well-known than Elizabeth I, though, and I was introduced to a few new artists and writers including Aphra Behn and Gwen John, and I think as an introduction to some of those ‘forgotten’ figures, Murray’s strength as a journalist shines.

With some of the later figures, however, Murray offers some more personal anecdotes, including the times she spent interviewing Thatcher and a reflection on how Thatcher’s own career as Prime Minister and her advice to ambitious young women that they should get a part-time job so as to stay home and care for the children were particularly galling. I never feel particularly sorry for Murray’s Thatcher, although the anecdote about how Bernard Ingham hid most of the misogynistic or sexual comments her fellow MPs and world leaders made about her is both slightly sad and a whole lot ‘Yeah, that explains a lot’, but I am interested by it.

There are a few sides where it feels like this falls down. The first is that Mary Seacole is the only BAME woman to make Murray’s list – she might have included Phyllis Wheatley, who was the first published African-American author of poetry, Olive Morris, who was an activist and community leader, or Lilian Bader, who was one of the first black women to join the armed forces. The second is that, other than Boudicea, there is very little reference to women in the military – again, people like Ursula Graham Bower, who was a guerilla fighter in Burma and who directed several Naga ambushes against the Japanese forces so successfully that the Japanese placed a bounty on her head, Lise de Baissac, an SOE agent parachuted into France, or Violette Szabo, another SOE agent who was captured and died at Ravensbrück. Or at least a couple of murderers? Mary Ann Cotton, Mary Bateman? On the other hand, it’s singers, artists and writers everywhere you turn, so at least women have done some good things for culture, probably?

Well, maybe, and that’s the third weakness – it doesn’t feel like we really get to know the ramifications of most of the decisions these women make, or are invited to consider the impact their actions may have had outside their vignette. Murray seems to be focusing on the women as individuals but I don’t really understand why. The title promises me history through women, but the overall effect is somewhat disjointed and it doesn’t feel like we’re left with a much deeper understanding of British history than, “Oh, women are not useless! Some of them did some pretty impressive things.”

Thanks, hen, but I think I might have already come to that conclusion before I opened the book.

That’s not to be too negative, because as I say, Murray is an interesting writer when she ‘picks a side’ so to speak – her reflections of actually interacting with Thatcher? Compelling, and deliciously awful. Her explaining the life and times of someone I’ve never heard of before? Great, pithy, to the point. It’s only those times when she brings in her own asides, her memories of seeing a statue or what she thinks someone might have felt that we lose some of that rich detail about the subject of her vignette and see the author get in the way, a little.

Probably not one I’ll feel compelled to reread any time soon, but it made for a good introduction to some figures I will be interested to learn more about – probably in a history book that doesn’t forget the history side of things this time.

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