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Interview: Lucy Worsley

"I don't think history always 'gets better'": the historian and presenter on queens, clothing and curation

I meet Lucy in her office, set in the beautiful Tudor part of Hampton Court Palace, where she spends most of her time when not making television programmes in her day job as Chief Curator at Historic Royal Places. She invites me in, wonderfully dressed as always with her trademark bright lipstick, and I notice that her office is full of amazing memorabilia from previous programmes that she has made over the years, including several pairs of what appear to be historic dancing shoes. There are also shelves and shelves of books lining her walls, including her recently released work Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow, which she kindly gifts me a copy of. We get talking firstly about her recent projects, especially regarding her focus on including women in the narrative.

Why do you enjoy writing about women in history?

I don’t like to ram it down peoples’ throats – I don’t have a lot of power in life, but I do have some influence and I like to be the sugar-coated face of feminism. It’s my secret mission that if we do a programme about the history of women it doesn’t say “women” all over it – it’s just entertaining and people hopefully may find it relevant and they may just imbibe from that the underlying feminist agenda. Although we have just been nominated for a BAFTA for our programme about the Suffragettes. I consider myself to be the sort of historian who’s work isn’t for other historians – it’s for people who don’t necessarily even like history or who don’t think that they like history. I am always looking for ways to make it entertaining as well as educational or serious or heavy – the flip side of that is that I could be accused of being frivolous – but I don’t mind that! I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

When you’re making a programme how do you decide on the educational value? How do you strike a balance between entertainment and so-called serious history?

I know that a lot of people get fed up with topics that appear to be obvious like Henry VIII for example – he does get a lot of programmes made about him. The reason is that he’s “box office” – the commissioners know that people will tune in – so I’ve got to find a sweet spot between topics that people will have heard of and find some connection to and yet where there is something fresh and new to say about them. Celebrity culture even applies to history! I hope what we did when we covered Henry VIII for BBC1 was to do it through the means of his wives and to put them at the centre of the story. That was considered to be slightly left field –that’s the sort of degree of radicalness that you can afford in a television environment.

You have recently written a book and made a programme about Queen Victoria, and you’re coming to the Oxford Playhouse later this month to give a talk. Why does she interest you?

On the 24th May she is 200 years old – it’s a big birthday that’s been in my diary for the last 10 years or so. Not only have I been working on this book but also on some new exhibitions at Kensington palace about her life – opening on the 24th of May. She was born in Kensington Palace and lived there until she was 18 years and 3 weeks old which is when she became the queen – an amazing joyful moment in her life and then at that point she leaves Kensington palace (our property) and then moved to Buckingham palace. One exhibition is in in the rooms where she grew up and that’s permanent – then we also have for this summer only a temporary exhibition which tells the story from 18 to death – the whole of the rest of her life when she wasn’t at Kensington Palace.

As a historian, what do you think about TV dramatisations that sometimes lack historical accuracy?

They’re brilliant! I will take them because they are gateway drugs if you like. I have a friend who teaches French 17th century history at Trinity College Oxford and she found that people were applying to do her subject because they had seen a crazy drama called Versailles. That’s very much entertainment but there was a nugget at the core of it that made people want to know more about this subject and that can be the first step on the ladder of involvement. I did genuinely get a letter from somebody who said “I came to Hampton Court Palace and saw an exhibition – I then watched a documentary about the same topic and then I read book, then an evening class, and then an Open University degree and now I want to come get a job as a curator here.” That was such a “yes” moment for me. You’ve got to start somewhere.

I got into it through historical fiction – I used to love reading historical novels and that was perhaps what drew me to it first of all. I’m not too proud to say that! I didn’t start by reading the Calendar of State Papers Domestic – I started by reading Jean Plaidy!

What do you think of Queen Victoria as a female monarch?

What interests me about her is that she had to meet or break the rules of being female that existed in the 19th century. Of course she had power and privilege so in a sense there are other women from the 19th century whose stories deserve to be told more but she is so well documented that there’s loads there to work with. The British edition of my book has a subtitle “daughter, wife, mother, widow” because she was those four things as well as being the Queen – the fact that she was the monarch was second choice to everybody – everyone wanted it to be a man. She was breaking the rules before she even started. The Victorians had such expectations of what daughters and wives and widows were supposed to do that she had to work within that and actually it was a really clever way of being a queen in the 19th century by presenting yourself as a wife, a daughter, a mother, I think, because these were the highest values of the Victorian age. They loved the idea of having the woman as the homemaker and Queen Victoria just went with that – she said I may be the queen but I’m also a lovely humble retiring home maker and I’m sure that’s part of the reason she survived while other countries were having revolutions. It’s like Queen Victoria was so unthreatening that she was so appealing to Victorian sensibilities that she wasn’t worth overthrowing – that is I think the secret of her success. That she presented herself as a little old lady is like the Miss Marple school of leadership!

Has life got better for women in society as time has gone on?

I don’t think history always “gets better” – you assume it does but if you have women being more economically active in the 18th century then less economically active in the 19th century because of changing social norms then let’s not take what we’ve got for granted in some areas of life – in America at the moment I would say we do see a reversing status of women in society.

How did you get interested in curation?

When I was 18 I visited a National Trust property – about the age when I had started my history degree – and I was thinking about what to do next and it suddenly struck me that this was a job! I know I’m quite lucky that it happened to me when I was 18 because for some people that light never goes off in their head, but I knew immediately what I was going to do so I did my degree and started searching for a job in this field. I did my PhD whilst working for English heritage, and the research that I did became an exhibition.

Do you have any advice for your university-age self?

Take yourself less seriously! I did a lot of things; I was involved with the RAG parade, I worked quite hard, I rowed [queue a loud exclamation from me].  I was so uptight and stressed and tense the whole time! This is advice that I would still give myself that I should chill out and relax a bit more. This is the problem us swots have!

How did you get into writing?

It had always been my goal to write a book – after I finished my PhD I could have turned it into a scholarly monograph but I wanted to turn it into a trade book instead, a book for the general reader. I like to think my genre is called non-fiction bodice ripper! When I published my PhD thesis with Faber and Faber they sexed up the title and called it “Cavalier: The story of a 17th century playboy”! The job of a historian is to do a piece of research work, but the job of the public historian is to do a piece of research work and then to make sure it is used in different ways. My PhD has been used in the form of an exhibition and an audio guide through that book and then later I made a BBC4 programme.

I noticed that sitting in the fireplace of Lucy’s office were three pairs of beautiful historical shoes, and we got onto the topic of historical fashion.

Sometimes I appear in a costume in my programmes which is partly because it’s cheaper than hiring actors, but also because of my love of dressing up! And it’s partly because one of our collections here at Hampton Court is a dress collection. It’s the royal ceremonial dress collection, and I think that historic costumes are a worthy topic of scholarly enquiry – they’re an excellent way into social history through material culture. I believe that clothes are important in the construction of an image, as we see queen Victoria doing, so I don’t mind putting some effort into wearing an outfit for the camera; it seems to be part of the job. Another part of me thinks that it doesn’t matter what we look like surely, but that messes with my head a bit; art historian thinks that it does but feminist thinks that it doesn’t. clothing from the past is all about hierarchy; that’s the big difference between the class structure of the 18th century – it is very clear, very delineated through clothing, and a lot of that is to do with the restriction of the movement of the women; she doesn’t need to move because she has servants to do that, that’s the signature of her high status. It doesn’t matter that she can’t hurry, pick anything up, labour; she’s not supposed to which is a sign of high status but a sign of entrapment I suppose.

[Lucy goes over to the mantlepiece and brings three pairs of shoes over to the table]

I did a programme about the history of dancing and we learned historical dances: these are the shoes of the 18th century minuet, a formal dance, these are the shoes of the 19th century polka, which is freer, and these are the shoes of the 1920s, which was my favourite dance because I was no longer wearing a corset, my potential husband had died in World War One, I had a vote, I had a job; I was liberated in my dress and my attitudes and my wild jazz inspired Charleston. I loved this project; the reason it happened was that when I got married my husband made me sign a pre-nuptial contract that I would never appear on Strictly!

Like you say, the personal is the political; it comes into everything; personally, I like the nitty gritty dirty detail of daily life; I know our visitors like it. They often come in thinking they should ask about the aesthetics of the Baroque or the reformation but what they really want to know is how did Tudor people go to the loo! They want to know how different their lives were to ours, and the answer to that is in some ways familiar, which is your way in, but the next job I have to do is to make them seem strange; they’re not just like us dressed in historic costumes; they had different language, different world view, different views on religion.

What I learn from history is that nothing stays the same, that change is possible. You can look at the world today and think that there is the possibility of me changing this. That’s what I think is ultimately the point of learning about history. Finally and most importantly it gives you the sense that political change is possible; whether that’s to do with underpants or Brexit!

Lucy’s show Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife Mother and Widow comes to the Oxford Playhouse on the 27th May.

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