Book Review – ‘A History of Britain in 21 Women’ by Jenni Murray


Broadcaster Jenni Murray’s history of Britain through 21 revolutionary women holds up a new mirror to the past, a catalogue of inspirational lives delivered with wit and verve. They were famous queens, unrecognised visionaries, great artists and trailblazing politicians. They all pushed back boundaries and revolutionised our world. Jenni Murray presents the history of Britain as you’ve never seen it before, through the lives of twenty-one women who refused to succumb to the established laws of society, whose lives embodied hope and change, and who still have the power to inspire us today. [Description from Waterstones]

I really enjoyed this book. I listened to it as an audiobook read by the author, Jenni Murray. She really brings the lives of these women to life and into the modern day, particularly the 17th and 18th century women like Mary Seacole, Ada Lovelace and Mary Somerville. I hadn’t even heard of some of the women, but they all seem like very sensible and imminent suggestions and I want to know more!

The history of these women is explored in great detail, looking briefly at their upbringing and relationships with their family and others around them, before moving on to their achievements and why they deserve inclusion in the list. Murray acknowledges that some of the women included on the list may be controversial, but she manages to explain why each is important and deserves inclusion, even if you might personally disagree or prefer someone else.

There is a lot of focus on the movement for gender equality and women’s rights, which I suppose is understandable, and most of the women come from the 18th century or later, again understandable I suppose, but disappointing. There just isn’t enough surviving evidence about these earlier women to justify a chapter, and women had a lot less freedom to make an impact anyway. As we can see from the list of women covered in the book, women in the earlier period are leaders and queens rather than women in other fields.

The writing style is clear and concise and easy to follow. I was listening to this at work and I don’t feel like I missed a single detail, even though I was focusing on something else. Even when I had to take a break from listening I wanted to get back to it and find out more about these women, some of whom I hadn’t really heard of before or didn’t really know anything about.

What I did like about this book is that every woman is discussed in her own right in her own times, largely without 21st century bias, and giving credit to others where it was due. It’s a really interesting take on the history of women, choosing just 21 from across history.

This is a really interesting read, even if you are looking for something quite light – it isn’t too heavy in detail or complicated concepts. If you have an interest in history, particularly in the role of women in history I would thoroughly recommend this book!

The 21 women discussed in this book are:

  • Boadicea
  • Elizabeth I
  • Aphra Behn
  • Caroline Herschel
  • Fanny Burney
  • Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Jane Austen
  • Mary Somerville
  • Mary Seacole
  • Ada Lovelace
  • Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
  • Millicent Garrett Fawcett
  • Emmeline Parkhurst
  • Ethel Smythe
  • Constance Markievicz
  • Gwen John
  • Nancy Astor
  • Barbara Castle
  • Margaret Thatcher
  • Mary Quant
  • Nicola Sturgeon

Author: Helene Harrison

I have an MA in History, with a thesis entitled 'The Many Faces of Anne Boleyn: Perceptions in History, Literature and Film'. I have an interest in the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses along with my love of reading and literature.

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