Robson Press £17.99
Heroines and Harridans: A Fanfare of Fabulous Females, By Sandi Toksvig
Wild women remembered with a smile
There are three things you immediately notice about Sandi Toksvig. Her height, her wit and her distinctive voice, which lurches between that of an irritable games mistress and a serious judge. Coming over the airwaves – Toksvig currently presents The News Quiz on Radio 4 – it's rip-roaring stuff, and it translates to the page, too.
Heroines and Harridans is a motley collection of stories about the women history either forgot or ironed out. It's written in an anecdotal style, with jokes flickering through the text: the asides of a comedian who won't be bound by the formality of a typical history book.
Those who receive the Toksvig treatment include: Alice B Toklas, the partner of Gertrude Stein, who performed wifely duties while Stein dazzled Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway with her intellect; Pope Joan, who may or may not have existed, but if she did, gave birth in her papal robes during a ceremony in the 9th century; Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Bryon and a lover of both mathematics and opium; and a clutch of royal consorts through the ages.
The vignettes of these lives are accompanied by Sandy Nightingale's jolly illustrations, which have the whimsicality of Beryl Cook paintings. Along with Toksvig's voicing, it makes for quite a giddy read. Those expecting a serious feminist history will be disappointed. But the great virtue of Heroines and Harridans lies in making women's history fun. The characters collected – especially the women from the suffragette movement at the beginning of the 20th century – are stripped of their austere images, while their eccentricities sing out.
One who really shines through is Dame Ethel Smyth, a tweed-wearing conductor who beat time to the suffragist anthem "The March of Time" with a toothbrush from the window of her cell in Holloway Prison. Another detail Toksvig includes is that Marie Stopes, as well as pioneering birth control, believed in free love and had an open marriage.
Toksvig's writing style does eventually grate – 150 pages of hearing her voice in your head is more than enough – but this is a book designed to be dipped into, not consumed in one sitting.
film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Stephen Fry explains what he would say if he was 'confronted by God'
- 2 Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
- 3 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 4 Ball pool for adults opens in London
- 5 Rashida Jones speaks out against male-centric porn saying 'women should have sex and feel good about it'
Gorillaz Phase 4: Cartoon supergroup is back as new artwork is unveiled
Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
Game of Thrones really doesn't want Danny Dyer - EastEnders star rejected three times
Game of Thrones season 5 trailer: The first full-length look is here
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Stephen Fry explains what he would say if he was 'confronted by God'
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures
Hard line on immigration could cost Tories the election