19th September 2023. Handheld Biographies 5
Vita Sackville-West was infatuated with her. Virginia Woolf hated her. Sir John Reith resented her but couldn’t do without her skills: she transformed the BBC into a broadcaster for the people. Lady Astor was her close friend, making a way for her into the heart of Britain’s political, cultural and intellectual aristocracy. Hilda Matheson was one of the most important women behind the scenes in Britain’s public life between the wars and an influential networker between feminist, media and political powers.
Hilda Matheson’s life is told by her first biographer Michael Carney and by BBC producer Kate Murphy. This passionate, loving woman has finally been the given the memorial her energies and achievements deserve. Her letters to Vita Sackville-West and the Astor papers form the heart of her story, revealing her candid and devoted nature.
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Hilda Matheson’s passionate affair with Vita Sackville-West was the high point of her emotional life, but she thought there would be so much more to experience. She packed more into her short life than most people would even think possible. Every challenge was accepted, and she lived her life to the full.
She worked for MI6 in the First World War, then became Lady Astor’s political secretary, the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. Poached by Sir John Reith, Hilda moved to the BBC to become the first Talks Director for the fledgling BBC, but Reith turned against her liberalising energies, and Hilda resigned rather than compromise her principles. Selected to lead a monumental survey of African economics and natural resources Hilda laid the groundwork for the move away from British colonialism. At the beginning of the Second World War she was put in charge of a new propaganda unit to tell Britain’s story to its allies and enemies alike through recordings, images and books.
Having suffered all her life from Graves’ disease, which afflicted her with the phenomenal energy levels she needed to tackle the huge tasks in her career, Hilda died during a routine operation in 1940, aged 52.
Michael Carney’s biography of Hilda from 1999 has been updated and is republished in this edition with a long essay by Kate Murphy about Hilda’s work with and for women between the wars.
‘Shrewd and well-connected, Matheson was a pioneer in broadcasting and counter-espionage alike – until she picked a fight with Lord Reith … Possessed of what Michael Carney and Kate Murphy celebrate in their biography Hilda Matheson as her “quick, intelligent, sympathetic and idealistic nature”, Matheson was something of a heroine … [Reith] thought Matheson’s schemes too highbrow: she went against his lower-middle-class, philistinic prejudices. For her own part, Hilda thought her male superiors had the “wits of a mentally deficient hen”.’ – The Telegraph
Vita Sackville-West’s grandchildren say …
‘I find it quite amazing that one of the most dazzlingly accomplished women of her generation who achieved so much in such a short time has been almost forgotten. Michael Carney and Kate Murphy’s wonderful book is the story of a woman who, with equal measures of modesty and determination, fearlessness and imagination, was punching through the patriarchy endemic in the establishment of the time. While Hilda’s parallel love affairs with the BBC and Vita are so well told, I was particularly moved by the openness Hilda shows in her letters to Vita where she celebrates the joy of same-sex love at a time when those relationships rang with the enforced silencers of taboo and shame.’ – Juliet Nicolson
‘So gifted and forceful and yet thinking of herself as no more than a stoker of other people’s fires, so brave and resourceful and so widely disparaged, disliked essentially for her strength of character, and yet able to submit so comprehensively to Vita’s use of her, and in the end treated with a kind of arrogance and carelessness that is shocking. I wonder if Vita did ever love her?’ – Adam Nicolson
Join Kate of Handheld and Brad Bigelow of Neglected Books in a discussion about Hilda Matheson and how the book came about. Watch the video here.
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Valentine Ackland, by Frances Bingham: the first biography of this cross-dressing lesbian poet and long-time lover of Sylvia Townsend Warner.
Business as Usual, by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford: a comic novel in letters about the serious side of single women working in London in the 1930s.
Personal Pleasures, by Rose Macaulay: witty essays and partical memoirs from 1935 of her life in Italy and England, a woman of letters and a magificent novelist and biographer, one of the mainstays of London’s literary life, and a frequent giver of talks for the BBC.