Heroines and Harridans: A Fanfare of Fabulous Females, By Sandi Toksvig

Wild women remembered with a smile

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The Independent Culture

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.