Book Review: Radio Girls by Sarah-Jane Stratford

Fascinating stuff, radio. Glorious being in on the ground floor, as it were, isn’t it? Maybe we’ll get to see how far it can go.

Radio Girls by Sarah-Jane Stratford follows two women, Maisie Musgrave and Hilda Matheson, as they attempt to assert  their right to contribute in the male dominated field of broadcast journalism. Maisie begins working at the BBC as a secretary with her duties split between the head director- known, most often as the DG or Director General- and the head of the Talks Department, a woman, Hilda Matheson, who quickly becomes Maisie’s role model, mentor and friend. Maisie is timid and modest yet she harbors ambitions that slowly make themselves known. She is the battle between old-fashioned and modern personified.

The dark rows of unloved terrace houses gave way to streets wide enough to encompass history, close enough to wrap that history around you and make you feel how fleeting and finite you were within it. Maisie exulted in the oldness of the building, their grandeur and glisten, stoically gazing down on the throng of people and trams and buses and cabs and horse-drawn carriages, with a snake of private cars looping in, men encasing their weather in sleek metal and leather and wire wheels. Women, too, occasionally, nearly always driving opentop cars, bursts of impertinent sunshine in beaded cloches, cherry-red lips widespread in ecstatic smiles, eyes fireworking from behind their motoring goggles. Racing their way somewhere they no doubt called important.

Hilda is quite the opposite- striking, opinionated, driven yet still diplomatic. She strives to educate the public through her work at the BBC.

Why can’t any man, woman or child try to read Ulysses if they wish to? And if they like it, grand, and if they don’t, fair enough, and if they find it disturbing to their morals, they can soothe themselves with some appropriate balm, and if they find it a stimulant to the mind and heart, then they will carry that with them all their days and be always seeking out new books to treasure, and isn’t this the whole point of the society we supposedly fight for and value?

Despite their obvious differences, Maisie and Hilda share one commonality- a love and reverence for the radio.

How did anyone ask the questions that answered in this configuration of wood and glass and wire that was changing the whole world? Thousands of years ago, someone gazed into the night sky and saw that some stars were planets. And then they mapped the universe. They unlocked mathematics. They saw the way the sun moved across the earth and how to harness its power, warming homes and baths, growing plants. And they developed tools. The capacity to sail around the globe, the build cathedrals, to run a factory, to capture images on paper and then on-screen. And now, to send a story throughout the country, from a machine.

Set in 1930’s London Radio Girls explores other topics relevent to this period of history. The first being the equal right to vote. Stratford capably captures the emotions felt by the women as they begin to grasp the gravity  of such a decision.

“Equal suffrage? Are you sure? What did she say?” “She said it meant all women…” Maisie choked up. It had never mattered to her before, not politics, not anything. But women had died for this. Phyllida lived for it. It mattered a lot. Her words came out in a squeak. “All women over twenty-one can vote. No restrictions.”

This realization, along with Hilda’s counsel, help to empower Maisie and  she begins to transform into a stronger, more confident version of herself. Meant to perpetuate this transformation, the two women become involved in an attempt to thwart British Fascists from monopolizing newspapers and the radio in order to spread their propaganda. Forced to confront her priorities regarding marriage, Maisie must make a brave choice which culminates in a  race through London, a breaking news bulletin, and Maisie’s metamorphosis.

Hilda grinned, blowing a smoke ring. “I can remember a young woman terrified to take on such work, or even ask questions.” “I remember her, too,” Maisie said. “I can’t say that I miss her.”

Radio Girls is a fascinating, historically accurate tale of the brilliance of radio,  it’s ability to influence pubic opinion- for better worse- and the women behind it all.

Read voraciously.


Intrigued? Buy the book here:

Radio Girls

by Stratford, Sarah-Jane
Trade Paperback

A review copy was provided by Berkley Publishing Group via Netgalley. 


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