ASK Musings

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Daily Archive: 21/04/2023



April 2023



Queen of Codes by Dr Jackie Ui Chionna

Written by , Posted in Reviews

2 Stars

Best for:
People who are really interested in the translation of Mozart’s and Beethoven’s papers.

In a nutshell:
A detailed biography of Emily Anderson, one of the female code breakers in the UK during WWI and WWII.

Worth quoting:

Why I chose it:
It sounded interesting – who doesn’t enjoy a good story about the people who helped fight fascism?

What it left me feeling:

I am just not having a lot of luck with books this year. I’ve had more 2 and 3 star reviews so far this year that at this point in any other year, I think. And this is another one. This is not a bad book, but it is not a book that I enjoyed.

Emily Anderson definitely had a secret life, and she was a great code breaker. But I can’t tell if this book didn’t do her justice, or if her story would perhaps have been better suited for inclusion in an anthology or as a long read magazine article.

Anderson was an Irish woman who was very talented in linguistics. She assisted with code breaking during the first world war, worked as a professor, then returned to work on reviewing diplomatic messages before resuming her work to assist the allies during WWII. Her work in Africa was critical in helping to defeat Italy, so that’s wild. She was also super into translating Mozart’s and Beethoven’s papers, and the discussion of that takes up nearly as much of the book as the discussion of her work on state secrets.

There are definitely interesting aspects of Anderson’s life – she appears to have been a lesbian, never marrying a man and living with at least a couple of women for an extended period of time. She also was a woman working in a field that was overwhelmingly male. A field where only the only women who could work in it were unmarried women or widows, and they had to resign if they got married. A field where (shockingly) women were paid much less (like, 75% less) than men for the same work, and sometimes less than their inferiors.

I’m not sure if it’s because it was the audio book, but so much of this just felt like a reading of papers without real story-telling. We know very little about Anderson because very little of her personal correspondence was found, and since she worked in a sensitive field she never shared what she did. Instead, she was known for her work translating letters. Ultimately I don’t feel like I got to know Anderson well at all, and I think that a good biography should help the reader do that.

Recommend to a Friend / Keep / Donate it / Toss it:
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