“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” claimed Thomas Carlyle. Jenni Murray would care to disagree. The stalwart broadcaster and journalist who has headed up BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour since 1987 has written a personal refutation of Carlyle’s claim in A History of Britain in 21 Women (2016), a bright and breezy series of vignettes which paint brief biographies of some of the women who have helped shape Britain.
The women to make the 21 are a varied selection, from the supremely well-known in the guise of Elizabeth I and Jane Austen, to lesser known figures who excelled in their personal fields, like Gwen John (art) and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (medicine). There are, inevitably, a number of inclusions from politics, whether they be Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst who were central to the Suffragist and Suffragette movements respectively, or more modern figures like Nicola Sturgeon and, grudgingly, Margaret Thatcher for whom Murray has only back-handed praise. Overall, a good spread of disciplines are represented and the list is well balanced with no fields dominating (as Murray suggests, she could have filled the book with authors she admires alone but restricts herself).
Each woman gets her own chapter and Murray gives each room to breathe and come to life through the anecdotes that the author blends with facts and small asides about her own personal connection with the woman in question. At times, as in the case of a vividly and grotesquely described mastectomy carried out without anaesthetic on Frances Burney, which Murray discusses in relation to her own experience of cancer, the connection can be painfully clear and deeply wrought. At other times, there is a greater lightness as in her discussion of Mary Quant’s miniskirt revolution but always Murray has one eye on the impact these women have had on her own life and the other on what they represent for women on a far wider scale. A word must be given to Peter Locke’s illustrations, too, which are a lovely complement to the short biographies.
What I can say is that A History of Britain in 21 Women is a nice, gentle introduction to some of the most important figures in the country’s history. There will be a number that most readers will already be familiar with, but just as many who are only on the outskirts of one’s consciousness at best. As such, this is a good primer to these women and a starting point that may lead one on to discovering more of the rich history that often goes unreported. In truth, I may not have needed 700 words to sum this book up as both the best and worst thing I can say about Murray’s book is that it delivers exactly what one would expect. And that, perhaps, is all one needs to know.