English Heritage this week asked for suggestions to increase the number of women honoured by its blue plaques. The current proportion is 14%, though a sizeable band of female writers will soon be eligible: Beryl Bainbridge, Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Jane Howard, PD James, Sarah Kane, Doris Lessing, Ruth Rendell and Muriel Spark.
That said, it’s not hard to find literary contenders with London connections who are surprisingly plaque-less (besides Gertrude Bell and Daphne du Maurier, who are reportedly already lined up). Barbara Pym had an office job in the capital for 17 years, as reflected in her novel Excellent Women. Iris Murdoch worked for the Treasury in the 1940s, and set books including Under the Net and A Severed Head in the capital. US journalist Martha Gellhorn, who died in February 1998, covered the blitz in wartime and spent her last 15 years back in the city. Angela Carter, who grew up in south London and returned there in the 70s, is arguably the scheme’s biggest miss. Other Virago authors who are unfeted include Rosamond Lehmann and Rebecca West. So too, in crime fiction, are New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh (an interior designer in Knightsbridge from 1928-32, hence her British detective Roderick Alleyn), and reclusive Josephine Tey, who spent most of her life in Scotland but died in London and similarly had a series sleuth (Alan Grant) from Scotland Yard.
English Heritage’s record is a little better than that of Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, however: not a single post-1900 female author has a place in the national literary shrine – so Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin are in, as are Margot Fonteyn and Peggy Ashcroft – but even Virginia Woolf misses the clerical cut.
A shortage of women, though, is not necessarily the most striking thing when you tot up those consorting with royalty in the Abbey. For many, that will be the grotesque disparity between the handful of representatives of the Stem subjects buried in the nave – around 10 scientists, from Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking, one engineer and no one from maths or technology – and the scores of real and alleged poets gathered in their Corner. And the same is true if you scan the borough-by-borough lists of blue plaques in London, and those elsewhere: hundreds of artists and entertainers, but just the biggest names from science.
English Heritage’s record seems even harder to defend when it comes to plaques for people of colour. The borough of Camden, for example, a traditional haven for emigres that includes Hampstead, manages an African statesman (Kwame Nkrumah), a Muslim reformer and a black pianist – three out of 169.
Clearly far more urgent than improving the female-to-male ratio, this problem may require changing the rules. English Heritage could drop the requirement that recipients have to have been dead for at least 20 years – and even let in those still alive – so that candidates are eligible sooner. Not insisting on long spells of residence in the pad with a plaque would also allow in short-stay visitors of suitable stature, from American musicians and writers to intellectuals and politicians from the developing world. Relaxing the rules about places of work would mean they could include the venue of a momentous conference or performance, a lab, a park or a pub.
Scotland (which has plaques with different colours and remits) has shown England how to be more flexible. In Edinburgh, violating at least two English Heritage rules, JK Rowling already has a plaque marking the former cafe where she began writing the Harry Potter saga – a pointer to how to swiftly increase not just the numbers of women honoured, but of notable scientists and ethnic-minority achievers, too.
• This article was amended on 2 November 2018 to include the correct title of Barbara Pym’s novel Excellent Women.