Monday, April 10, 2017

Radio Girls, by Sarah-Jane Stratford

There are some novels that you never want to end. "Radio Girls," a great novel of historical fiction, is one of them. Author Sarah-Jane Stratford takes us to mid-1920s' London, a time when the BBC was inventing itself, and most of parliament considered radio an experiment that would not last. The novel's protagonist, Maisie Musgrave, is a young Canadian women with a cold, distant actress mother and a British father she has never met. She is hired by Sir John Reith, the BBC Director General, as a secretary, but is soon working for Hilda Matheson, the director of the new BBC "Talks." (Reith is known as one of the few employers of this time to hire women for substantive positions--as long as they remained unmarried.)

Surrounded by Cambridge and Oxford graduates, Maisie feels the lack of her formal education. She has never gone to any school, and is mostly self-taught by reading everything she could find in the libraries in the many cities she traveled to, dragged along by her mother. She also doesn't know if her parents ever married, a serious mark against her in the 1920s, if true. Notwithstanding, Matheson recognizes that Maisie's solid, investigative mind is that of a potential producer and takes her under her wing. Vivacious, exciting Matheson, a member of the Bloomsbury Group (and romantic partner of Vita Sackville-West), is used by Stratford to convey the thrill of creating a media that, for the first time, connected people as live radio broadcasts entered their sitting rooms. Stratford writes:

"Hilda had written in her notes on broadcasting, that it was 'a capturing of sounds and voices all over the world to which hitherto we have been deaf. It is a means of enlarging the frontiers of human interest and consciousness, of widening personal experience, of shrinking the earth’s surface.' Such a lovely way to describe this curious creature they were continually inventing. The stranger inviting itself into a silent home, asking to become a friend."

(How intriguing and moving that Matheson's words could also be used to describe that 21st century "creature," the internet.)

It was an exciting time for any young person with a lively, curious mind. The world was changing quickly: in London automobiles were everywhere, hemlines were rising, women were entering the business world and universal suffrage was about to become law. Maisie absorbed all of this. In addition, as part of her duties, Maisie was required to contact famous authors and artists to see if they would agree to be part of the daily "Talks." Imagine her excitement, or the excitement of any young person of the time, when she is given the responsibility of telephoning Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, H.G. Wells, and P.G. Wodehouse, to name just a few.

"Radio Girls" is one of best novels I have read this year; it definitely is a book that lovers of historical fiction will want to read.

Print Length: 381 pages
Publisher: Berkley (June 14, 2016)
Publication Date: June 14, 2016
Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC