“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.

A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray book cover
Murray makes it clear as she introduces the book that the 21 women featured are a personal selection rather than an attempt to objectively select the 21 most significant and objectively important women to Britain’s history. This notion is carried through as Murray weaves her own biography with the history of the women she discusses, which creates something more than a historico-educational tone and saves the book from becoming a rather dry exercise.

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.

Murray’s informal and endlessly warm prose puts one at ease immediately and, although not a listener of Radio 4 let alone Woman’s Hour myself, it is very easy to imagine her calm style of broadcasting if she talks as she writes (which I suspect is the case). Yet the biting edge of her commentary whenever she engages with male criticism of her chosen women or the agendas they represent, is notably sharper and breaks the comfortable rhythm. Were one to imagine this were but a happy and safe romp through women’s history, one would be mistaken. That said, I rather suspect there are feminist historians (particularly interested in marginalised races and sexualities) who would have put forward a more radical line-up or commentary, that may not have felt quite so comfortable for Middle England (who, one assumes, are the intended audience for this book). Not to mention those interested in women before Elizabeth I, who are barely represented.

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.