I'm delighted to introduce Sarah-Jane Stratford who's written the novel Radio Girls about a powerful woman, Hilda Matheson, who helped establish BBC Radio in London.
Thanks for coming on the blog to answer a few questions, Sarah-Jane.
Thank you for inviting me.
RADIO GIRLS is set in London in the late 1920s and early 30s and explores Britain’s venerable BBC. As an American writer, what interested you in exploring something so quintessentially British?
I’m pretty attached to Britain, having gotten a Masters degree from York and grown up watching a lot of British comedy and reading British literature. I’m a history buff, and like my fictional character, Maisie, I like to be where history has lived a long time. But what whetted my appetite for this story was Hilda Matheson, whose own interests and influence are universal.
Also, good stories are good stories, no matter where they come from. I’m always drawn to stories of fearless women breaking down boundaries and seeking to create something, to speak their true voice. Ultimately this is a women’s story and a human story and where it took place was secondary to the draw of the characters and the story.
What made you decide to use an actual female BBC producer to explore the work ethos, bigotry and foibles of the period?
This whole venture would not have happened had I not stumbled upon Hilda Matheson’s name when I was doing research on women in journalism. So there you go, another reason to conduct regular research. Hilda was one of those gifts a writer always hopes to come across but you don’t expect to actually find. Of course, I could have invented her – that is what fiction is meant to do, I realize – but I love writing historical fiction that is grounded in real history. It’s a nice way to bring my two obsessions together. Or possibly it’s my means of assuaging my guilt about never completing my PhD. In any case, there I was, reading about Hilda, mouth hanging open, being more and more astonished that such a woman existed and was mine for the taking. The comedian Sandi Toksvig had cited Hilda in an article on women who ought to be more known and I was determined that was going to happen.
Right up to their last scene together, Maisie and she addressed each other by their last names even though they’d worked for some time together. Was that intentional?
What I love about this observation is that in fact it feels that way, but it’s not the case – they still address each other as “Miss Matheson” and “Miss Musgrave,” which would be standard for the times and women of two different ages who weren’t related. But I’m delighted that the mutual respect and friendship comes through, even with the formality. In fact, there’s only one instance where Hilda uses Maisie’s first name and it’s a moment of high emotion, a rare moment when Hilda forgets herself because she’s overwhelmed. And what’s overwhelmed her is the information that the Equal Franchise Act is being passed, guaranteeing universal suffrage. This was one of my favorite sequences to write, because there was a lot of history to think about. So many women who had worked for this and never got to see it – never even got to see the suffrage granted to a select group of women in 1918. Hilda, a staunch progressive, must have savored this moment. It was exhilarating to write her emotion here and, hopefully, convey the weight of the history behind it.
I’ve read you’re keen to see an historical blue plaque erected at her former home to acknowledge her life and work. How’s that going?
We shall see! “Onwards and upwards,” as I have Hilda say. She only finally got her own Wikipedia page! And it doesn’t mention Radio Girls, not that I noticed (*cough*). I’m really hoping that as people get to know about her, they’ll only want to know more. Because really, how could it be otherwise? She was extraordinary – and revolutionary.
Beanie’s a thoroughly aristocratic English character who’s clever, witty and great fun. One can easily see she was a bit of a rebel at her school. But she realizes she must put duty to family before her work? How did you set about developing her so beautifully as a memorable secondary character?
Thank you! She certainly was a fun character to write. I love characters who have no filter and just speak their mind. And while I always want minor characters to be fully realized themselves, it was particularly paramount in this story that all the women be in full voice. I wanted to represent someone like Beanie, who would be in a way more radical than some of the other women in going out to work, because while her comforts were greater, she still had a great many conflicts to contend with and her class privilege in many ways curtailed her personal freedom.
You lived for a time in London? How did that help your research affect the novel’s voice?
I’m generally of the mind that you don’t have to visit a place to set a work there because again, so long as you are writing truthfully about humans, you’re being authentic. Obviously, it depends, but I never think it’s wholly necessary. That said, having spent time in London and especially walking down Hilda’s street and through the BBC’s original home definitely helped me step into Maisie’s shoes and, hopefully, make her wanderings that much more real. Beyond the physical space, though, it was the research into the programming and day-to-day life of the BBC and the people who comprised it that really brought the book to life. I was extremely fortunate in that Hilda was a prolific letter writer and wrote to Vita Sackville-West constantly during their 2-year relationship (who says long-distance relationships don’t have advantages?) and that the letters are housed in the Bienecke Library at Yale, so I was able to access them with ease and get a strong sense of Hilda’s voice and inner life. Mostly, though, it was thinking about the characters and their world that made it all real.
What inspired you to become a writer?
What’s next for you?
I’m in that myopic stage of feeling my way into my next book. Also, I’m available for work. At quite reasonable rates. Sometimes just for food.
You can find out more about Sarah-Jane here