Jenni Murray. A History of Britain in 21 Women. London: Oneworld, 2016. RRP £9.99 paperback.
A few weeks before Christmas, I was browsing a bookshop when I noticed the vibrant cover of A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray. I was sorely tempted, but, remembering my overflowing bookshelves and the growing piles of books at the bottom of my bed, I restrained myself. I put the book on my Christmas list instead, so I at least didn’t have myself to blame when my piles of books grew a little bit taller. I am very glad that I was given the book; it is a thoroughly enjoyable read that has left me more determined than ever not to allow misogyny to hold me back.
The twenty-one women in this book rose above the low expectations of their gender and defied anyone who insisted ‘a girl can’t do that.’ Slowly, slowly, over the centuries, they changed the gender landscape for those of us who came after.
Murray, 2016; p.4
As the name implies, A History of Britain in 21 Women profiles 21 women from British history. Each chapter is about 15 pages long, and details the women’s biography, their achievements, and their impact on society, politics, and culture. The selection is historically comprehensive, beginning in the first century with Boadicea, and ending in the modern day with Nicola Sturgeon. Inevitably, many women are left out, but Murray is careful to justify her choices, explaining why the 21 she chose resonate with her personally.
The book is more personal than I was expecting. It does have the subtitle A Personal Selection, but this is only mentioned in the front matter, not on the title. After initially being unsure about this, I came to enjoy Murray’s short personal reflections and anecdotes. I was particularly charmed by a conversation she describes having with one of her sons when John Major took over from Margaret Thatcher as prime minister.
Beyond being thrown at first by the tone of the book, I can find very little to criticise in A History of Britain in 21 Women. Each chapter is self-contained, so it feels almost like a collection of short stories, but I wasn’t put off if I read several chapters in one sitting, as I often am with similarly structured books. Each chapter is accompanied by a portrait by Peter Locke, the style of which suits the book’s message really well. Locke’s sketches don’t feel idealised or ‘touched up,’ the women in the sketches feel…real; they look like they’ve lived. It’s quite hard to put my finger on it, but I like them.
It is the women themselves, their lives, actions, experiences, and attitudes that are the real stars of this book. Some of them are familiar–such as Elizabeth I, Jane Austen, and Margaret Thatcher–whilst others are less well-known–like Aphra Behn, Mary Somerville, Gwen John. But they are all remarkable. Every one exelled in the field they chose, whether it be medicine, art, politics, or science, often despite massive obstacles and prejudice. They are inspirational.
I was given A History of Britain in 21 Women as a Christmas present, and I do think it makes a wonderful gift, even for those who aren’t avid readers. It’s especially good for those who need a reminder of just how much it can be possible to achieve.