Hilda Matheson: A Life of Secrets and Broadcasts 
by Michael Carney and Kate Murphy.
Handheld, 260 pp., £13.99, September 2023, 978 1 912766 72 7
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The catastrophe​ of the First World War was, for many women, ‘pure liberation’. The words are those of the novelist E.M. Delafield, whose Diary of a Provincial Lady was the ancestor of Bridget Jones. There was a sense of relief at emerging into a world from which the constraints of the Edwardian age had been blown away. The loss of 880,000 men meant that many women would never marry, but they would have the vote and they would have unprecedented opportunities. The short hair and short skirts of the postwar decade spoke of a wider sense of possibility. ‘Booms in photography, Sunday film and theatre clubs, Surrealism, steel furniture, faintly obscure poetry’ were among the things Rose Macaulay singled out as characterising the ‘decorative, intelligent, extravagant’ 1920s. In 1919 the Women’s Engineering Society was founded and Nancy Astor became the first female MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. A year later Oxford began formally admitting women and Time and Tide, the feminist magazine that published Delafield, first appeared. Its proprietor, Lady Margaret Rhondda, a peeress in her own right, campaigned energetically, albeit unsuccessfully, to be allowed to take her seat in the House of Lords.

Hilda Matheson was 32 in 1920 and newly appointed political secretary to Nancy Astor. She appears on the cover of Michael Carney’s biography, first published in 1999 and recently reissued, photographed in three-quarter profile with shingled hair, spotted neckerchief and slightly parted lips: the very image of the New Woman. The daughter of a Presbyterian minister to whom she was close and a mother whom she seems to have disliked, she grew up in a cultivated household used to political debate. Her father’s fragile mental health meant she had to leave school early, but the Mathesons’ Continental travels in pursuit of rest cures allowed her to become fluent in French, German and Italian. In 1908 she joined the Society of Home Students in Oxford, where her father was a chaplain, and read for the Honours History School, specialising in the Renaissance. While women were not yet allowed to matriculate, she did well in finals, albeit not as well as her tutors felt she might have done had she spent less time with drama groups and the Bach Choir. By 1914 she was working as an assistant at the Ashmolean Museum.

During the war Matheson took up clerical posts with the Mayor of London’s emergency fund and the Third General Hospital, then the War Office and, probably on the recommendation of her Oxford tutors, the Security Intelligence Bureau. She worked in espionage in London and later in Rome. Exactly what she did isn’t clear. As Carney notes with regret, ‘the Secret Service remains secretive,’ but Matheson was apparently involved in compiling information on suspected German spies in Britain. Intercepting mail and piecing together the information stored on a vast card index that snaked round Section H, the main registry, would seem to have been the essence of it. Three-quarters of the staff were women aged between twenty and thirty, and they worked in shifts round the clock. In two years a considerable number of suspects were arrested and tried. Some were imprisoned and eleven were executed by firing squad in the Tower of London. By 1916 the enemy agents had been rooted out and Matheson was sent to establish a similar operation in Rome. What she felt about her war work is impossible to know, but she did it efficiently. Something may be deduced from the fact that, having been an active member of her father’s congregation and of the student Christian Union, she emerged from the war an atheist.

The job of political secretary was a perfect fit for her. ‘She was really completely magnificent and we worked as one,’ Nancy Astor recalled. ‘I might describe it as my zeal and her brain, with the backing of Mrs Fawcett and all those suffrage pioneers.’ Matheson’s role was more that of a spad than a conventional secretary; indeed, she had a secretary of her own to deal with everyday correspondence. She kept the diary, drafted speeches, prepared briefs, dealt with the press and wrote the many courteous refusals necessitated by Astor’s celebrity status. She also got her employer safely through the general elections of 1922, 1923 and 1924. Kate Murphy, whose essay forms a somewhat awkward appendix to Carney’s biography, makes a case for their work that implicitly questions his somewhat dismissive view of Astor as a politician. Despite her influence on attitudes to the rights of women and children, he concludes that she ‘didn’t initiate any important legislation’. That isn’t untrue, but there is more to effective government than legislation. Astor was an inspired networker, bringing together representatives of women’s professional bodies, many of them newly formed, in her monthly ‘at homes’. This led to the formation of the Consultative Committee of Women’s Organisations, which included the Council of Women Civil Servants, the Women’s Engineering Society and the Women’s Police Service. The WPS was a wartime force that was expected to disband at the Armistice but its commandant, Mary Allen, carried on, despite being arrested in 1921 for wearing police uniform. The CCWO connected women operating in male-dominated professions, providing practical as well as moral support, and Astor and Matheson were equally active on the home front. The League of Women, established in 1923 under their auspices, campaigned and leafleted among working-class women, organising local meetings to discuss maternity, the Poor Law, child welfare and unemployment. Matheson wrote a pamphlet, ‘Lady Astor and Her Policy’, directed at ‘women in the back streets’, despite the fact that, while the property qualification for the franchise remained, none of those women could vote.

The years with Astor are all part of Carney’s first chapter, ‘Early Life’, and he rounds them off with something like a school report: ‘An effective political secretary. She always had real knowledge of the things she talked about, never wasted time and always made her points clearly.’ Murphy makes more of these years. They gave Matheson a breadth of experience and insight into the lives of women across the social spectrum as well as an impressive list of contacts, all of which she made use of in the next and best documented part of her life: what Carney calls her ‘Golden Period’, from 1926 to 1931, when she worked for the BBC (or the BBCo, as it was when she joined it). Established in 1923, and still under the auspices of the Post Office, the BBC was another postwar phenomenon and a promising field for a woman. Its policy on female employees was unusually egalitarian. When Matheson met John Reith, the first director-general, through her work for Astor, he recruited her to be director of talks on the phenomenal salary of £900 a year.

She was 38 and unmarried, fully formed as a character. Yet the Matheson of this period remains, despite her biographers’ efforts, somewhat opaque. Many of her personal papers have been lost or destroyed. It would seem that most of her significant friendships and all of her love affairs were with women, and it was no doubt her lesbianism that led to the destruction of letters that her family would have found embarrassing. Contemporaries record that she was small and slender, looking younger than her age, with grey eyes and ash blonde hair, not pretty but energetic and engaging. Harold Nicolson, whom she came to know both because she commissioned him as a broadcaster and because, for three years, she had a passionate love affair with his wife, Vita Sackville-West, based a character in his novel Public Faces on her. ‘Jane Campbell’ is described as ‘girlish’ and viewed in the discomforting terms that presumably went through the minds of her male colleagues. ‘How tight, how trim, her skirt around those little thighs … swinging her hips a little with … her girl-guide gait.’ The fictional heroine she more resonantly brings to mind is Stella Gibbons’s incarnation of liberated interwar womanhood, Flora Poste. Matheson, one feels, might have said with Flora that ‘On the whole I dislike my fellow-beings; I find them so difficult to understand. But I have a tidy mind, and untidy lives irritate me.’ Her management style when dealing with Astor’s constituency party chairman or Lord Reith at his most Cromwellian recalls Flora’s efforts to organise the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm. When H.G. Wells got her into his flat, clearly planning to assault her, Matheson realised that it would be ‘sheer folly, not to say fatal’ to panic or scream, so she simply laughed at him ‘and by the end he had become ruefully avuncular.’

The BBC may have been progressive on some fronts, but it was still of its time. Reith, like Matheson’s father a Presbyterian, had strong views on programming, of which he was in sole charge. In 1926 there were two million wireless licences, but the five million or so estimated listeners had only one station to tune in to and when Matheson arrived most of its output was music. Talks were considered less important, and they also posed a risk to ‘our’ principles, as Reith defined them in an apologetic letter to the Times after a talk by Julian Huxley had made a brief allusion to birth control. Scripts and songs were scanned for double entendres (notoriously, ‘winter draws on’) and newsreaders wore evening dress, though plus-fours were allowed in the office on Saturdays. Murphy, whose first career was as a radio producer, makes clear how innovative Matheson was in her programming. She saw the potential of broadcast talks, especially in the mid-morning slot, to reach women such as ‘A.B.’ of Manchester, who wrote to the Radio Times in 1929 to say that they ‘come as a godsend to women bursting with mental energy, yet who must stay close to work-a-day household duties … cleaning a kitchen went down a little better while listening to the intelligent observations of an intelligent woman.’ As Matheson knew from her work for Astor, child mortality was still extremely high. Child nutrition and nursery school provision were among the topics of the talks she commissioned, as well as debates on subjects such as the ‘marriage bar’, which excluded married women from many professions, and ‘the science of homemaking’.

As the general election of May 1929 approached, Matheson’s programming addressed the many women who would be voting for the first time, explaining how to vote and why it mattered that they did. Talks ranged widely over other subjects. Matheson introduced The Week in Westminster, which still runs on Radio Four, and there were discussions and poetry readings. There were also difficulties. The right sort of voice for broadcasting wasn’t always easy to find. Professional actors were too mannered for the new medium and were especially bad with verse (they tended to ruin the metre). Matheson reduced Lilian Harris to ‘shreds’ over her ‘sloppy sentimental’ reading of Walter de la Mare and kept on until she had ‘bullied all the coyness out of her’. The technical process of broadcasting was still novel and there were occasional mishaps. Mr Hobbs, ‘a farmer talking about manure’, was introduced by an announcer who then left him alone in the studio with no idea when to begin. In desperation Hobbs pressed the bell by the microphone, at which signal he was instantly cut off by the control room. The irresponsible announcer in this case was David Tennant, who was also guilty of starting off John Duckworth on a poetry reading with instructions to keep going until Tennant returned, after which he forgot about him. ‘I am told,’ Matheson noted crisply, ‘that he went on until half past eleven!’

Other difficulties at the BBC that were to persist into the next century included the suspicion on the part of politicians that it was ‘a gang of reds’, the jealous hostility of the print media and the crippling commitment to ‘balance’. Reith, Matheson complained, was ‘obsessed by the idea that all forms of thought, and all subjects, can be discussed in terms of yes and no. That they are all in the category of vivisection or capital punishment.’ This outburst was prompted by his resistance to a talk on modern art by Osbert Sitwell unless there were a counterbalancing talk on the Victorians or classical art.

Matheson first met Sackville-West in April 1928, when she made her first broadcast. She was a natural. Her voice was pitched low enough to avoid the frequent complaints that women sounded squeaky on the radio and she was popular with audiences. When she gave a reading from her long poem The Land, Matheson wrote to congratulate her. Soon afterwards she was invited to stay with the Nicolsons in the country and fell madly in love. This was ‘the most completely comprehensive sweep I ever dreamed of, all of me, in every sort of different way’, she wrote: ‘You are the most beautiful person that’s ever swept across my horizon … you’ve gone to my head like your Spanish wine tonight.’ Sackville-West wrote back, letters that Matheson treasured and found it ‘a heavenly occupation’ to reread, but which do not survive. Their tone and content can only be deduced from Matheson’s side of the correspondence.

Although she was four years younger than Matheson, Sackville-West was very much the dominant partner. Her Knole and the Sackvilles (1922), a history of her family and their ancestral home in Kent, was widely enjoyed by a public for whom visiting stately homes was an increasingly popular pastime. By the time she met Matheson, Vita and Harold had come to an understanding. Both were primarily homosexual, and their marriage became a strong, companionate arrangement that later settled into a pattern. They spent weekends together in the country, lived separate lives during the week and, when apart, wrote to each other every day. This was not, presumably, the situation they outlined when on 17 June 1929 they gave a carefully scripted joint talk, commissioned by Matheson, under the title ‘Marriage’.

In the three months from December 1928 to February 1929 when she and Sackville-West were apart during Nicolson’s posting to the British Embassy in Berlin, Matheson wrote more than a hundred letters. They are most interesting for the sidelights they cast on her work at the BBC and her opinions of friends and colleagues. Other people’s love letters, like other people’s dreams, usually fail to convey the intensity of the first-hand experience and Matheson was not a gifted writer. She upbraids herself for her repetitive sentiments and phrases; her tone is often apologetic, sometimes abject. It would seem that for all its special intensity, this relationship ran along the same lines as her other affairs and friendships, where she was inclined to emotional masochism. Her lovers tended to dominate her in one way or another, either by force of personality or by a needy weakness that kept her at their beck and call. Matheson’s name for Sackville-West was Orlando, for the fictional version of her that Virginia Woolf, another lover, had created. Matheson was the Stoker. ‘So gloriously odd, to love a stoker,’ she wrote to Sackville-West. ‘Stokers grub away in their trousers … they are rude and uncultivated, of limited imagination and few wits.’

There was an element of social snobbery on both sides in this collusive fictional version of the relationship. Woolf, who was furiously jealous of Matheson with her ‘aspiring competent wooden face’, makes that clear. For all her advocacy for female independence and education, she professed incomprehension at Sackville-West’s susceptibility to the Stoker and her ilk, ‘the earnest middle-class intellectual, however drab and dreary’. Somehow Matheson was given the impression that ‘your Virginia thinks me all right,’ and she made strenuous self-effacing efforts to accommodate the other lovers and ex-lovers who orbited Sackville-West. After two years or so, Sackville-West moved on. The relationship faded out. In 1938 she published ‘Solitude’, a poem that reflected her ability to engage love without reciprocating it. Matheson was as much bewildered as hurt and wrote to her. ‘I am puzzled by your attitude to love – cheap and easy … the stifling tendrils of ivy – do these epithets apply to your own past attitude to love, or to love itself and all human relationships? … what differentiates love of that quality from love which liberates the heart and opens the mind?’ The letter is the closest we come to her unselfconscious self.

The end​ of the affair coincided with the death of Matheson’s father and perhaps accelerated her departure from the BBC. She had felt increasingly frustrated with the Reithian constraints placed on talks, and her growing familiarity with Bloomsbury and its contempt for ‘middle-class intellectuals’ no doubt added to her impatience. She had no professional support from her boss, Roger Eckersley, a failed chicken farmer who had got the job through his brother, the BBC’s chief engineer, and who had to be dragged off the golf course to attend meetings. As Matheson grew more impatient she was, as a woman, inevitably cast as ‘truculent’ and ‘difficult’. Her colleague Mary Somerville attributed Matheson’s irritation to her ‘new friends’ – Reith and Nicolson didn’t see eye to eye. Carney also implies that she had got above herself and failed to realise how much of her authority in her previous job had come from the association with Nancy Astor. Yet when she resigned, the press coverage was extensive and sympathetic, appreciative of her achievements in the talks department and hinting that she had been forced out. The Telegraph wondered if she would now go into politics; the Evening News lamented the loss of the ‘very well dressed’ Miss Matheson, ‘the exact opposite of a panjandrum’, who had carried on despite the fact that whatever it broadcast ‘somebody was always blaming the BBC.’ The times were in any case changing. Rose Macaulay’s ‘decorative, intelligent’ 1920s were giving way to a more sombre decade. The 1930s were to be ‘more serious, less cultured … The slump blew like a cold draught at its birth, war stormed like a forest fire at its close.’

Whatever they meant for Matheson herself, the BBC years are a golden age for her biographers. After that she fades somewhat from view. She went to work on the African Survey, a project under the auspices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs that attempted to prepare Britain’s African colonies for a postcolonial future. It was one of the peculiarities of this complicated decade that the growing sense of the end of empire coincided with its peak in the completion of Lutyens’s New Delhi. Matheson worked as hard and methodically as ever while the committee grappled with the scale of the project they had undertaken, and the survey’s nominal author, Lord Hailey, remained in ‘a state of nervous collapse’ in a Swiss nursing home. He was unable to give evidence to a commission on relations between Rhodesia and Nyasaland, but it was felt that Matheson should provide only briefing notes rather than present the evidence herself because ‘women are apt to be influenced by strong prejudices, especially on native problems.’

By this time she had entered a new relationship, with Dorothy Wellesley, another of Sackville-West’s ex-lovers. Variously described as ‘eccentric’ and ‘disturbing’, Wellesley seems to have been one of the clingy lovers to whom Matheson martyred herself. Woolf, disliking them both, thought Matheson a victim of ‘the poisoned arrows of Dotty’s egotism’. The couple formed a joint friendship with the elderly W.B. Yeats, a connection about which her biographers could surely have said more. In 1938, with war looming, Matheson was again recruited for espionage. She organised talks for MI6’s Joint Broadcasting Committee with her colleague Guy Burgess, who had been at the BBC since 1936. Matheson, grasping the propaganda value of promoting British culture abroad, was once more in her element. In July 1940 she wrote that ‘the Balkans could be reached by cable, or from Cairo using diplomatic bags and while … difficult it would be extremely weak-kneed not to try. New methods of approach are continually discovering themselves.’

The JBC had, inevitably, a tense relationship with the BBC, whose studios it used. Old wounds were reopened and tempers flared. Matheson lacked support and seemed increasingly on edge. Although she ignored the fact, her health was failing. She had suffered for some time from Graves’ Disease, a thyroid condition characterised by anxiety, irritability and hyperactivity. How much of the ‘truculence’ that led to her resignation in 1931 could be attributed to her condition rather than the influence of Bloomsbury is another question to which Carney and Murphy might have given more thought. The composer Ethel Smythe, who visited Matheson in a nursing home in October 1940, reported her talking ‘at almost railway speed’. Two days later she died in the course of a thyroid operation. This biography, like her poorly attended funeral, leaves an impression of a woman underrated in life who could have been better served in death.

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Vol. 46 No. 3 · 8 February 2024

Rosemary Hill mentions that Guy Burgess was Hilda Matheson’s colleague at MI6’s Joint Broadcasting Committee (LRB, 25 January). Burgess was deeply involved with the BBC Talks Department before the war and from November 1941 produced The Week in Westminster. The Joint Broadcasting Committee was one of a troika of organisations, with Electra House and the BBC itself, that produced propaganda: black, grey and white, depending on the admixture of truth. Burgess, with his association with Section D of MI6, seems to have served as a link between them.

Michael Holzman
Briarcliff Manor, New York

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