Radio Girls, Sarah-Jane Stratford (2016)

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I noticed the beautiful cover first, I admit. Reading the back, I wasn’t certain that a book on the early years of the BBC when it was radio would be of interest. What I found was a book so finely researched and a story with such exciting and surprising plot lines, I couldn’t put it down.

Radio Girls is based on the nascent BBC, when many believed radio was a passing phase. It is run by Director General Reith, who does not like to take chances and believes young women really should not be working outside the home and definitely not after they marry. His foil is Hilda Matheson, Director of The Talks Department, who believes radio is the great democratizer. For the price of a license, the radio can bring knowledge and inspiration into every household. Having been hired on with the blessing of Lady Astor, of whom she was her political secretary, Hilda’s connections in politics, the arts and sciences brings well-known speakers in to lecture, tell stories and give advice.

The story is told through Maisie Musgrave, a Canadian-born young woman, who grew up in New York City, the daughter of a neglectful and disinterested actress mother. Her father, who was never in the picture, was born in England. Her shy reticence belies the fact that, though she was just shy of her 14th birthday, she obtained a fake birth certificate so she could join in the war effort by volunteering for the nursing corps in 1916. After the war, she moved to London in search of a job. She lands a plumb assignment when Mr. Reith hires her as assistant to his secretary, Miss Shields, who becomes practically giddy when Maisie struggles with her work. But Maisie is a fast typist and knows how to prioritize, so when her time is split with ‘Talks,’ her true talents and ambition are revealed.

As Maisie’s responsibilities grow and she spends more time with Hilda and the Talks Department she discovers Hilda’s involvement in an undercover operation ostensibly with MI5. Maisie volunteers to attend secret meetings of British Fascists whose loyalty to the German Nazi Party extends to their scheme to take over print and radio in Britain. In the course of her investigations, Maisie makes the sad discovery that her fiancé is one of them. This story line culminates in an exciting coup for Hilda and the Talks Department when the plan for this conspiracy is exposed through a broadcast over the radio.

What makes this novel so compelling is that it is based on real people and events. As the author, Sarah-Jane Stratford says in the Author’s Note, almost all the Talk titles are real, including the series, This Week in Westminster, a lecture series on politics 101 after women win suffrage. Imagine listening to book reviews by Vita Sackville-West or talks by HG Wells, John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf?!

Besides the real life characters, one of the interesting things about this novel is the attention to production detail. The always enthusiastic men of the Sound Effects Department are asked to produce all sorts of sounds to accompany broadcasts and their efforts in trying to capture them provide for some funny moments. The sound stage, where broadcasts are presented has to be extremely clean and the rustling of the script, which the presenters read by hand have to be perfectly still, as every minute sound is picked up by the microphones and amplified. This provides even more humorous moments as well-known authors and politicians have to learn to speak without moving and read without rustling.

I love the passion of Hilda Matheson, who illustrates in a very real way, how radio brings the world into homes in the most remote parts of the country; that even if a person can’t read or have access to a newspaper he or she can still be kept current on events around the world with a radio and a license. It is her mission to provide this knowledge and access to everyday people. But in the end this is a radical notion for her superiors, who are only too happy to have cause to end her career when the conspiracy is broadcast. In her real life she is let go, she believes, because she is outed as a lesbian by one of her subordinates.

Stratford gives a short biography of Hilda Matheson at the end of the book. It is interesting to note that although she fought long and hard with Reith and other forces both at the BBC and through her work with MI5, her work in broadcasting lives on. She wrote a book called Broadcasting (1933), which was long heralded as the only textbook on broadcasting until the late 1960s.

A Domestic Tale as Wartime Propaganda: Mrs. Miniver (1939), Jan Struther


Mrs. Miniver was “more powerful to the war effort than the combined work of six military divisions.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill

What effect can a book made up of the vignettes of simple family life have on a world in conflict? Can descriptions of dentist visits, a mother/daughter shopping spree in search of the perfect doll, Christmas stocking treasures, the almost sacred responsibility of finding the right engagement planner, and feeling the joys of Spring, turn apathetic nations into a call to arms? Apparently, one did.

First published as a series of columns in The Times (of London), the Minivers are a fictional middle class family living an idyllic life in Kent. Mrs. Miniver details her life as a wife and mother to architect Clem and their three children Vin, Judy and Toby. Her days, though simple and common, are observed with a depth of wisdom and poignancy that grows as the world’s crises encroach into her life. Through all her normal activities she is aware her world is in that liminal time between the peace and stability of ordinary daily life and the upheaval of the war to come.

When Mrs. Miniver goes doll shopping with her 12 year-old daughter she wonders whether the “modern unbreakable dolls, which lasted for years, were more, or less, precious to their owners than the old china ones, whose expectation of life had been a matter of months.” On the day the family must give up their old car, she feels its loss deeply because she is a “fool about inanimate objects…She did not pretend to herself that cars had souls or even minds…No, but a car, nowadays, was such an integral part of one’s life… that it had acquired at least the status of a room in one’s house. To part from it, whatever its fault, was to lose a familiar piece of background.” As the car is driven away, she cannot bear to watch and turns on the bath tap, lathers up her ears and begins to sing at the top of her lungs.

Though her days are spent like any middle class wife and mother in child rearing, lunches, teas and weekend parties to ascribe to her a stereotypical superficiality or ignorance of the larger world, would be a mistake. And while many of her activities are light-hearted and relatable, as when she obsesses over the design and feel of a new engagement planner and purchases her second choice only to return minutes later for the one she really wants, or the annual New Year’s Eve fortune telling party where liquid lead is dropped in water to harden as the oracle device, Mrs. Miniver notices little things and ponders their power and worthiness.

But the world’s problems do encroach and she is forced to come to terms with their effect. When she takes her niece to Switzerland and the rumblings of war are apparent she experiences a moment of great universality when a little boy takes her hand to show her his rock collection, which makes her think of her own son and his “c’lection” of rocks.  She wonders at the ridiculous war talk, “when little boys in all countries collect stones, dodged cleaning their teeth, and hated cauliflower?”

As she passes a newsstand in her little village, she sees the word ‘JEWS’ plastered on the front page of the evening newspaper and winces. But she catches herself. She must not get to that point of not thinking about it. “To shrink from vicarious pain was the ultimate cowardice…it was a sin. Only by feeling it to the utmost, and by expressing it, could the rest of the world help to heal the injury which had caused it. Money, food, clothing, shelter—people could give all these and still it would not be enough: it would not absolve them from the duty of paying in full, also, the imponderable tribute of grief.”

As the prospect of war with Germany looms closer she and her family must be fitted for gas masks. And by the end of the book, the Minivers are living in their home in the country and fostering 7 children from London families to safeguard against the bombs.

The Film

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The power of the book and the release of the film version in 1942 cannot be underestimated. When the book was published in the United States in 1940, it topped the bestseller list and Jan Struther was sent on a lecture tour throughout the country.  President Roosevelt thought the film so important he ordered it rushed to theaters all over the US. As with Churchill, he believed it struck a chord and hastened America’s involvement in the war.

I have to admit I am a big fan of the film. And while it is very different from the book, its impact has been a lasting one garnering awards and placement on best and favorite movie lists. In 2009, The Library of Congress added it to its film registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant and will be preserved for all time.

Simple daily mundane routines. Family connections, community support and care for your neighbors. What the Allies fought for. What the Germans felt:

Mrs Miniver “shows the destiny of a family during the current war, and its refined powerful propagandistic tendency has up to now only been dreamed of. There is not a single angry word spoken against Germany; nevertheless the anti-German tendency is perfectly accomplished.” Joseph Goebbels

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My Edition:
Title: Mrs. Miniver
Author: Jan Struther
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace and Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1942
Pages: 298
Full plot summary

Challenges: Mount TBR, What’s in a Name, Classics Club