Jenni Murray’s Buxton Festival talk to focus on women who changed the face of Britain

Jenni Murray. Photo by Les Wilson.
Jenni Murray. Photo by Les Wilson.

Buxton International Festival’s books series boasts some impressive names but when Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray appears with Dame Janet Smith on Saturday July 21 the focus will not be on her.

Instead Jenni will be talking about her new book ‘A History of Britain in 21 Women’.

“It is extraordinary that so many women are just left out of history”, says Jenni.

She herself studied French and drama at university without ever learning that Aphra Behn was the first woman to earn her living writing plays.

Years later she was shocked when her son came home with his 20th-century A-level history book saying he could not find a mention of any women apart from half a page on the Suffragettes.

Jenni has found new stories even about well-known subjects. She explains how the “Warrior Queen” Boadicea was motivated to take up arms against the Romans because she was fighting for a tribal way of life in which, surprisingly, men and women took on similar roles and were both taught to fight: “I always think if only Boadicea had won… we could have had sexual equality as part of our culture.”

Elizabeth I would be her ideal dinner party guest: “There are several questions I would dearly love to ask her. One is: ‘How do you actually cope with a father who has had your mother executed?’

“Another would be: ‘Virgin? Really?’ I like her so much I want to think she did have a bit of fun with Leicester or one of the chaps who adored her.”

She included Fanny Burney not because she was the greatest novelist but because “she wrote one of the most courageous and extraordinary pieces of work I have ever encountered” - an account of her mastectomy.

Jenni has been open about her own breast cancer and says she “didn’t hesitate for a second” about including the graphic description.

“This courageous woman, and actually these courageous surgeons, were practising something that they didn’t know was going to work but she lived for years and years,” Jenni says.

“They saved her life. I always think, well at least I had an anaesthetic!”

If the women in her book have anything in common, she says it is that they had “fathers who made sure their daughters were educated”.

She values the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements and feels encouraged that today’s young men are “absolutely with it… they are saying: ‘We are with you, we get this, we want to know how to flirt well, how to get on well with our women friends who are absolute equals’, and that to me is terrific”.

Jenni’s next venture ‘A History of the World in 21 Women’ is published in September.

She says it was much harder because of all the research: “I found myself in Egypt with a pharaoh and then in France with Joan of Arc and then in China with Cixi and thinking: ‘Hang on a minute, what do I actually know about late 19th-century China? Absolutely nothing!’”

In the meantime she is looking forward to her appearance at the festival.

With a home in the Peak District, she comes to the town often, though she says: “The way Buxton has been neglected as a place of phenomenal beauty and history annoys me every time I go there”.

She says she has been “going on about the Crescent for the last 25 years” and hopes to be present on the day it reopens to see the John Adams-style ceilings which she trusts are “not too ruined from neglect”.

Jenni is not one to hold back and the Barnsley born and bred journalist feels that there is some truth in the idea that northern women have grit.

She says: “Hard lives have been lived in the north.

“A lot of those communities have been hugely damaged and if you look at what happened in the miners’ strike the people who kept families going were the women... so yes of course northern women are tougher than southerners!”

Perhaps just as tough in its way is the Radio 4 programme for which she is most associated. Woman’s Hour has been going for over 70 years and Jenni says it is always updating itself.

She believes that far from always talking about knitting or cooking, it has been “pretty radical even from the outset”.

“What it has managed to do is truly reflect the whole range of women’s lives without any kind of criticism,” she adds.

“And that’s something that will go on forever.”

• Tickets for the talk at Buxton Opera House on July 21, at 2pm, are priced £12. Visit www.buxtonoperahouse.org.uk/boxoffice/ticket/273594.