Tuesday, June 21, 2016

strictly literary: radio girls by sarah-jane stratford

every once in a while i do get away from the world war ii historical novel, somewhat fittingly i read radio girls in between reading the summer before the war and everyone brave is forgiven i say fittingly because this book takes place in britain between the wars. it is the earliest days of the bbc and at a time where women were beginning to work outside the home regardless of class, in professional environments. it's difficult to fathom now, but europe post-world war i was marked by a generation of young men lost. women had opportunities they wouldn't have simply because there weren't enough able-bodied men left to fill in every space.

maisie musgrave is a nursing veteran of the war, she lied about her age (she was only fourteen at the time) to do something to help the cause. since the war ended she's completed a secretarial school and finds a job at the british broadcasting corporation, yes that bbc. it's the early days of radio, and people are still skeptical about this box that talks. but maisie is excited by her work there. even though she is a simple secretary she gets to see people like hilda matheson and john reith at work building an empire in a new medium. the novel takes us through the early days of the bbc, gives us a sense of the inner working of early broadcast radio.

maisie is a fictional character and while radio girls is nominally her story, it's really the story of hilda matheson. she was a pioneer at the bbc, not only for broadcast radio but also for feminism. she was also a lesbian at a time where homosexuality was very much a taboo. (sometimes one reads these novels taking place in times past and shudders to realize both how far and how little we've advanced since then.) there isn't much known about hilda's biography other than the broad strokes, she was at the bbc, she also worked at mi-5, and she also published a book about broadcast radio. so maisie serves as the person who both learns from hilda and the person who fills in some of the gaps in hilda's biography with fiction. and it works.

i enjoyed the relationship between these two women. maisie looks up to hilda, as she should because hilda was a pretty amazing woman. when you consider all that she accomplished, all the shows she produced at that particular moment in history, it's pretty cool. this is also a time of political upheaval. europe is still re-building after the great war. the germans are restless, crushed under severe war penalites. the bolshevik revolution is still too recent to be viewed with anything but suspicion. working at the bbc means keeping abreast of all the news and happenings, and it also means sharing that information. radio changes how information is shared. for once it can be shared immediately, across great swathes of population regardless of economic class. i enjoy reading about this moment in european history. the early twentieth century was one change after another, it's a time period that provides fertile ground for good stories that still have resonance today. this is one of them.

**radio girls published on june 14, 2016. i received an advance reader copy courtesy of penguin's first to read program in exchange for my honest review.

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