It’s 1940, and a team of radio employees at the BBC’s Broadcasting House are trying to keep calm and carry on amid the trials of wartime. With Generals collapsing on air and nightly bomb attacks by the Luftwaffe testing the famous resolve of the BBC, Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1980 novel drops in on a pivotal moment in British history, through exploring a watershed moment in broadcasting. Much like in other industries and indeed society in general, the War changed the role of broadcasting in Britain.
I picked up this book while browsing in Judd Books with @podsticles a while ago, because the blurb sounded fascinating. I’ve always been interested in war literature and here is a book that addresses the home front and – more specifically – the women at the core of it. After recently reading Anne Frank’s diary I was struck by the role of the radio in the lives of everyone involved in WWII, and in the particular the importance and influence of the BBC on the Allied war effort.
‘Human Voices’ follows the career of a few young ladies employed by senior radio programmers at Broadcasting House. Predictably and sadly, the women are objectified and preyed on by their male employers, paid pittance and treated terribly in every possible way. This is of course uncomfortable to read but I love that Fitzgerald tackles the inequality head on: she challenges us not to deny the experience of women before us. Amid the bombing and the sexism and the political crisis, how the BBC managed to produce the morale-boosting radio that it did is rather amazing.
What I enjoyed about this book was the excellent evocation of a very specific time and feeling in Britain. All the characters were immensely frustrating, but they felt absolutely real. The writing is playful and skilled, and in that curiously British way blends humour with tragedy without ever working too hard to produce sympathy. I would have liked the novel to be longer, as the ending was abrupt, and for the characters to have been given more time – it read a little as if Fitzgerald ran out of ideas for them towards the end. This was my second Fitzgerald though (after ‘The Bookshop’) and I’m still keen for more Are you a fan? - 11 minutes ago