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.