As a child, I had an improving book called The Girls' Book of Heroines. It featured characters of sterling worth, whose example I was expected to follow. One of them, Grace Darling, achieved fame at the age of 22 by rowing to the rescue of sailors drowning off Northumberland. I wasn't sure how to match that.
Nor can I imagine how I might emulate the ferociously vivid lives of the women in this book. Some of them are dangerously louche, even sad: Henrietta Moraes, an artists' model, became trapped by drink and drugs, while Portland Mason, the precocious daughter of James Mason, was reduced to fighting bitter battles for her father's ashes.
Nevertheless, this is a roll-call of resilient and remarkable women, and it gives a bracing sense of what gung-ho good sense and good breeding could do for a girl. Many of these women could have come from the pages of P G Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh; it is almost a surprise not to find the names of Madeline Bassett and Nina Blount among them. Instead, the book begins with the redoubtable Vivian Bullwinkel, sole survivor when the Japanese massacred a group of Australian nurses marooned on Bangka Island, off Sumatra. Their matron's final words, as they walked into the sea, guns pointing at their backs, were: "Chin up, girls! I'm proud of you and I love you all." The stuff of legend.
In 1989, Hugh Massingberd edited the first such anthology of Telegraph obituaries, and these have become their own literary form: suave, often cunning essays, always an upbeat celebration of life, with minimal detail of sad decline. There is wit and wis-dom here, and fondness, too. The comedian Bea Lille "never looked at home off the light musical stage. Nor was she ever off it for long." Eva Gabor was "a starlet who specialised in jewels, mink and matrimony". The chapter headings are cheerily tongue-in-cheek: "Trailblazers", Battleaxes", "Matriarchs and Muses", "Bluestockings". The phrases "grande dame" and "femme fatale" crop up a good deal.
My favourites are the "Adventuresses", and of those perhaps the most impressive is Pamela Harriman, proudly described by her second husband as "the greatest courtesan of the century". Daughter of the 11th Lord Digby, she cut a swathe through men of power and influence. Having married Randolph Churchill after three weeks' acquaintance, she then (as the obit euphemistically has it) "amused herself" with Sir Charles Portal, the British chief of air staff, William Paley, president of CBS, Jock Whitney, later US ambassador to London, the broadcaster Ed Murrow, Prince Aly Khan and Gianni Agnelli. Finally she married Averell Harriman, a pillar of the Democratic Party, and after his death was appointed ambassador to Paris by Bill Clinton. Phew!
These lives span the 20th century, and show how women of confidence and background could defy conventions of their time to live the lives they wanted. A number came from military families, and several showed reckless courage in wartime. Mary Lindell, Comtesse de Milleville, led the Resistance in Lyons in the Second World War. The surgeon Margaret Louden pioneered a method of saving people injured in the Blitz. Plenty had nannies and governesses, and there are loads of double-barrelled names and nicknames (take Bindy Lambton, who posed for Lucian Freud, and whose dying words, on being offered a shot of morphine, recapped the 1940s song: "Cocaine Bill and Morphine Sue . . . Won't you have a little sniff on me").
But there are others with less privilege and as much distinction: Nora Beloff, the formidable Observer foreign correspondent, and Coral Browne, the elegant and witty actress. The writers Jill Tweedie, Angela Carter and Lorna Sage lived through and brought into being the feminist movement of the 1970s. While many of the well-born made their way and their reputations through their menfolk and family connections, these women struck out on their own. You can sense the tide turning.
If obituaries are the first draft of biography, there are many absorbing lives here. In this neat and spicy survey, you have the perfect book to read in the guest rooms of country houses. You'll know the kind, I'm sure.
Joan Bakewell's latest book, Belief, is published by Duckworth