Chris Harvey reviews the BBC documentary Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: a 17th Century History for Girls, which looks at the lives of women in Restoration England.
By Chris Harvey, 23 May 2012 in The Telegraph
Everyone’s favourite Curator at Royal Palaces, Lucy Worsley, was back on our screens in BBC Four’s Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: a 17th Century History for Girls. And not only was she striding purposefully around in a dramatic red coat, but also modelling the autumn/winter collections of the 1650s and 1660s to show us the changing fashions for women in the puritan era of Oliver Cromwell and the court of Charles II.
The Cromwell look was a heavy black uniform with no hair or flesh showing, which Worsley said made her feel “very submissive”; the Restoration look, she soon realised, was “little more than a negligee” that felt as if it could “just suddenly fall off”.
Worsley, though, was interested in the negligee wearers, spinning an unusual line on the gender politics of the time: the concept of powerful “career mistresses” as a new breed of woman, possessors of a new type of wealth and influence. She visited Althorp to show
us a wall hung with portraits of beautiful women, many of them mistresses of Charles II. The King faced them from an opposite wall, competing lock for lock for most luxurious hairstyle.
Worsley told us the stories of the already married Barbara Villiers, who bore Charles five children, and was made Duchess of Cleveland; and Louise Renée, whom the King made Duchess of Portsmouth. She also visited the site of the pad where Charles installed his most celebrated mistress, Nell Gwynn, to show us a fetchingly racy portrait.
Worsley imagined a modern equivalent: “A leading member of the Royal family acknowledging a mistress, her being a Cockney actress, her being photographed nude by Mario Testino; and circulating the images for everybody to see.” Sounded plausible to me.
Worsley’s very good at those odd little conjunctions between then and now, and engaging company, as ever. Plus she looks great in a cardie.
TV review: Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: 17th Century History for Girls
Lucy Worsley has a winning manner, but her sexed-up History for Girls is a bit lame
Zoe Williams in
The Guardian, Tuesday 22 May 2012 23.00
A fondness for dressing up … Lucy Worsley in Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls. Photograph: BBC/Silver River/Lauren Jacobs
Lucy Worsley has a pert, interrogative manner, and a lot of cardigans, and a fondness that I can only think is unique in someone of her age and intelligence for putting on dressing-up clothes. Here she is as a puritan, 10 years before the fun starts, in the 1650s. She tells us Cromwell was a manic depressive, which I think is a bit rum. If you're going to posthumously diagnose someone with a mental illness, you'd at least say bipolar. The restoration of Charles II brought in a different atmosphere altogether, in which women cast off their modest flaps of ear-covering muslin and started to wear something more like a nightie, liable to fall off at any moment. "These must have been erogenous zones," says Worsley, stroking the area above her collarbones. Not exactly, love. I think if you look at the portraits, the appeal of the garment is that you can see everybody's bristols.
Here's what I imagine was the pitch for Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: 17th Century History for Girls (BBC4) – it's a new era for women in England, in which they garner unprecedented power by sleeping with the king. It's totally different from Cromwellian times, but I think Cromwell, rather than his successor, was the aberration, outlawing not just shagging around but also Christmas and baiting bears. You wouldn't conclude that the Restoration Court was a great place for bears; merely that bears enjoyed more social events than they would have done in the previous, bizarre decade. That's going to be my next pitch. 17th Century History for Bears: 1660, and you've never had it so good.
I found the intrigues unremarkable. "For the first time in history," she says of the wrangle between Charles's mistress and his wife, "it wasn't clear who'd come out on top." Sort of. Certainly, it was the first time in history since it wasn't clear who'd come out on top between Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. "And that's another hold [Barbara Palmer] has over the king, her ability to reproduce." I don't know if you'd call this a USP.
Of course, we know these were licentious times, because Pepys recalls coming in his pants (or, as he puts it, "But here I did make myself to do la cosa by mere imagination") and Rochester writes a play called Sodom, in which he recasts the plague and the fire of London as God's punishment for the King's behaviour. "His sceptre and his … dash … are of equal length," Worsley quotes Rochester. "He's saying he's got a big one." No, no, no. The line runs on: "his sceptre and his prick are of a length/ and she may sway the one who plays with th'other." It's a metaphor for a king who governs with his dick. It really has nothing to tell us about the actual length of anything. Without wishing to be rude to the telly historian, whose manner I find winning, the thesis is lame and the exposition hobbles it further. Charles II was by no means the first king to sleep with women he wasn't married to, give them money, and listen to them; he won't be the last. If you could have extrapolated that any of these women had an impact on his kingship, then we'd be talking. But it looks from this as though all they did was squabble and gamble, and that's all the king did, too: have japes, shag around, manage not to get beheaded. Just on that last score, it probably looked like a triumph to him but, historically speaking, it was the 17th century governance equivalent of having Boris Johnson as mayor.
Oh, but there was one thing – Charles II's actual wife, Catherine of Braganza, left a lasting legacy to the women of England by introducing tea. "It changed the lives of women because now women had tea parties." Mmmm. I'm just going to leave that there.
Dr Lucy Worsley is a British historian and curator.
Worsley was born in Reading but when she was a week old went to live in Canada. Her father is a geologist and expert in glaciers and permafrost and Emeritus Professor at Reading University; her mother a consultant in educational policy and practice.
Before going to university Worsley attended St Bartholomew's School, Newbury. She graduated from New College, Oxford in 1995 with a first-class honours BA degree in Ancient and Modern History and in 2001 was awarded a D.Phil from the University of Sussex for a thesis on The Architectural Patronage of William Cavendish, first Duke of Newcastle, 1593-1676. In 2005 she was elected a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London; she was also appointed visiting professor at Kingston University. She is known for having a rhotacism (a speech impediment which makes her pronounce her r's as w's).
Worsley is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity looking after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace State Apartments, the Banqueting House in Whitehall and Kew Palace in Kew Gardens. She is currently overseeing the £12 million refurbishment of the Historic Royal Palaces, state apartments and gardens.
In 2011 she presented the four-part television series If Walls Could Talk exploring the history of British homes, from peasant's cottages to palaces; and the three-part series Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency.
In 2012 she co-presented the three-part television series Antiques Uncovered, with antiques and collectibles expert expert Mark Hill and (broadcast at the same time) Harlots, Housewives and Heroines, a three part series on the lives of women after the Civil War and the Restoration of Charles II .
Historian and writer Dr Lucy Worsley, currently presenting Harlots, Housewives and Heroines, about Restoration women. Photograph: Richard Saker
The death of celebrety historians is much exaggerated
Don’t write celebrety TV historians off just yet – as long as they don’t stray for their expertise.
By Richard J. Evans in The Guardian Sunday 27 May 2012
For about 15 years, history has been experiencing a popularity boom. History books now sell more than 5 million copies a year in the UK and feature regularly in the bestseller lists. You can hardly switch on your television without seeing Simon Schama, David Starkey, Niall Ferguson or their younger, often female rivals holding forth in some exotic or historic location. Natasha's Dance, Orlando Figes' study of 19-century Russian culture, was advertised on huge posters in London's tube stations. The latest volume in Dominic Sandbrook's multi-volume history of postwar Britain is prominently displayed in bookshops across the land. "History," a BBC television producer is said to have remarked, "is the new gardening."
Not surprisingly, younger academics are keen to jump on the media bandwagon, given the continuing relative decline in academic pay and the continuing absolute increase in the amount of work they are forced to do by the burgeoning audit culture; continuing cuts in teaching funding; and steep rises in student fees, leading students to make ever-increasing demands on their time. When I set out in the academic profession decades ago, nobody would have thought of using a literary agent or being trained as a television presenter. Now it's almost a matter of course for our more ambitious younger colleagues – as Sir Keith Thomas, chair of the judges of the prestigious Wolfson history prize, has recently complained.
A case in point was Amanda Foreman, whose Oxford history thesis was considered, as they all are, for publication in the respectable but little-read Oxford Historical Monographs series and, after lengthy consideration by a battery of referees, turned down. It was too late anyway: it had already appeared in print as Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, entered the bestseller lists, and been set up for filming with Keira Knightley in the title role. Meanwhile, its young author had featured in a promotional photograph standing naked behind a pile of copies of her book large enough to avoid any serious unseemliness.
Yet the compromises Foreman had to make to reach a wide audience did not in the end seriously undermine the book's scholarship, any more than putting the notes at the end of the book instead of at the foot of the page, or using them for the discussion of academic disputes, instead of the actual text, means the end of academic respectability. Sandbrook's writings on postwar Britain, Starkey's on the Tudor monarchy, Schama's on the early modern Netherlands, and many other, similar books manage to combine popular appeal with solid scholarship. It's when they abandon the latter for the former that they get into trouble. The latest row involving Orlando Figes concerns allegations of poor scholarship, misattributions and basic factual mistakes. But this isn't a consequence of his celebrity; allegations of the same kind have been made against obscure academic historians in the past as well.
Celebrity historians are especially likely to get into trouble if they desert their own field of expertise and enter the rough-and-tumble of political debate. David Starkey aroused accusations of racism when he said on television that the summer riots of 2011 showed that white people had "become black". Historians who court controversy by being provocative are likely to get more than they bargain for. Two years ago, Niall Ferguson's much-publicised divorce drew down upon him the kind of fake moral disapproval combined with salacious and intrusive comment usually reserved for footballers or soap-opera stars. Perhaps one of the outcomes of the Leveson inquiry will be to put an end to this kind of reporting, though, unfortunately, one suspects it won't.
Does all this mean the death of the celebrity historian? Are the media and the public getting fed up with the whole phenomenon of popular history? Will we go back to the old style of television history programmes – where there was no historian to be seen, only visual images backed by an anonymous voice- over read out by an actor? Is the day of the bestselling history book and the big advance finally over?
Despite all the media controversy, there's no sign of it. History continues to have a broad popular appeal, and long may it continue to do so. Good publishers and television producers know that history works best when written or presented by a historian who really knows the subject, such as Thomas Asbridge on the Crusades or David Reynolds on postwar international summits. It's when historians leave the territory of their expertise, get things wrong, appear on Question Time, host chatshows or write newspaper columns, that they become real celebrities; and, as some of them have found out, you become a celebrity at your peril.