Whilst lazing about on the beach during my summer holiday, I read a truly phenomenal novel of female empowerment, the BBC and the rise of Hitler. It doesn’t really seem possible that these three topics can somehow be linked and truly done justice to in less than 500 pages. But Sarah-Jane Stratford manages to succeed in this monumental task in her 2016 debut novel Radio Girls.
Not only is the plot itself incredible, a perfect mixture of action, society and even a smattering of romance, the clever use of actual historical facts and rumours makes it all the more realistic. So much so, that at some points within the novel it is almost impossible to discern fact from fiction. It blends almost seamlessly with the actual history of the time, and is that not exactly what you want from historical fiction?
There are a large amount of female characters with very different but equally strong personalities. The main protagonist Maisie Musgrave changes drastically over the course of the novel, at the beginning her only goal is to marry quick and marry rich. By the end of the novel she is a smart, hard-working woman who is both employed and married!
Maisie and her friends Phyllida and Beanie embody the changing ideals of society at the time, from the more conservative pre-WWI Britain to the new country portrayed in this novel. Unfortunately, and shown very well in Radio Girls, there were still some very conservative ideas during this time. This can be seen in the fact that Beanie quits her job at the BBC shortly after finding a gentleman to marry. Another point at which this can be seen is when Maisie goes to vote for the first time and she is asked whether “the appearance of the candidates” had swayed her decision at all. But this only adds to the historical context.
My favourite character, however, has to the wonderful Director of Talk Programming at the BBC when it started up in 1926, Hilda Matheson. Well, character is the probably the wrong word to use, as she was a real person and an incredible one at that. She needed no sensationalism to make her interesting enough for a novel to be written about her! If being the first to lead the Department of Talks at the BBC wasn’t good enough, she also had links to MI5 and worked with them during WWI AND she worked as the political secretary to the first female MP, Lady Nancy Astor.
However, by not having the novel narrated through Hilda herself, but instead by the entirely fictional Maisie Musgrave, Sarah-Jane Stratford both adds to and detracts from the story. This is NOT a bad thing, though it sounds like it could be! What I mean is that Hilda maintains her air of mystery and you get to discover things about her alongside Maisie.
And if the wonderful plot and incredible characters weren’t enough, it also has some extremely quote-worthy lines! Like, when one of the male characters says to Maisie “I’d have pegged you as the type who faints at the sight of blood” she replies with the wonderfully cutting “And I’d have pegged you for a gentleman.”. There is a reason for that, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you now, would I?
But, I would have to say that this is probably one of the greatest books I’ve read this year. So much so, that two days after I finished reading it, I picked it back up and started again!
The combination of the near-seamless historical context, fascinating characters and punchy one-liners has this wonderful novel all set to become a classic!