Interview by Katie Law in The Evening Standard, 27 April 2010
Historian Dr Lucy Worsley has been following every twist and turn of the current scandal surrounding her fellow academic, Orlando Figes, with what she calls “a prurient fascination”. She describes the dramatic unfolding of the saga, which began with theLondon history professor posting anonymous, vicious reviews of his rival's book on Amazon, and then denying it, as “hubris so satisfyingly followed by nemesis”.
But then Worsley is not exactly a stranger to the fearsomely bitchy world of history book publishing, having had several spats of her own with Dr David Starkey, who recently accused female historians of using their good looks to push up sales and of “feminising history”.
Worsley had retorted that if it wasn't insulting and degrading enough to judge historians by their looks, she would point out that Starkey looks like “a cross owl. I don't think he's happy with me. He's ludicrous and was just showing off,” she says, although she also concedes that he is a “brilliant historian”.
Yet she remains defensive about the current trend for popularising social history and, especially, women from the past. “There's a craze for popular narrative history,” she says, and particularly the stories of the unhappy queens and princesses — culminating in Princess Diana — who lived and, in some cases, died in Kensington Palace.
As chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), Worsley, 36, is currently overseeing the £12 million refurbishment of its state apartments and gardens, which is well underway already and set to be completed by 2018.
The first phase, of opening new rooms dedicated to Victoria's life and reign, will be ready in 2012, with four more to follow, including the opening of Princess Margaret's apartment, which since her death in 2002 has been used as a temporary exhibition space.
“The interiors will be restored to the Sixties and Seventies, when Princess Margaret and Tony Snowdon were the most stylish couple in London, including the smoke extractor in the kitchen that he designed himself,” says Worsley, whose job also means overseeing the collections at Hampton Court, the Tower of London, Kew Palace and Banqueting House.
This part of the palace will carry a permanent display devoted to Princess Margaret and Princess Diana's extensive collection of dresses, although, interestingly, Worsley believes Princess Diana is yesterday's woman, no longer considered a sufficient draw to merit her own exhibition space.
Almost 13 years after her death, Diana's apartment, which still belongs to the Royal Household, is used as office space and, she says, “while Diana remains a very important part of the history of the palace, she's no longer part of contemporary culture. It's time for her to take her place in the gallery, alongside all the others.”
In fact, of the 250,000 annual visitors to the palace, almost as many want to see the late 17th-century historic state apartments as are drawn to the palace because it is Diana's former home. The palace has had what Worsley calls “a thread of unhappy princesses”, of whom Princess Diana was simply the most recent. “I think theirs has always been a difficult job description, mostly to produce a male heir. But Diana also had a difficult marriage and had to adjust to life in a goldfish bowl”.
While Worsley makes a cup of tea in her office — what used to be Princess Margaret's attic — that looks out onto Clock Yard, not normally visible to the public, you can see the row of apartments where Prince and Princess Michael of Kent (who since January have been paying rent), the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and thePrince of Wales's Press Secretary still live. “I can sometimes see one of the servants polishing shoes,” she comments.
There is a figure visible but she won't be drawn on whose apartment we are looking at. “You have to imagine that the palace is like a really posh block of flats, with an invisible wall; the royals on one side and us on the other.”
As we tour the State rooms, Worsley — who got a First in history at Oxford and turned her PhD thesis on the architectural patronage of William Cavendish into a bestselling book rebranded Cavalier: A Tale of Passion, Chivalry and Great Houses (2007) — spouts dates, facts, figures and anecdotes with astonishing speed and accuracy.
The impression Worsley gives is that she lives and breathes English history, and has done so since being inspired by her history teacher at school. She says it enraged her geologist father, who could not understand what use a history degree would ever be to her.
“It's a vocation and a hobby,” she says, admitting that she spends her free time writing and researching, often in the British Library, rather than being domestic with her architect partner Mark Hines, whom she met in 1996 while working at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
They live together in a modern block of flats near Tate Modern, and, admits Worsley, in sharp contrast to the royal palaces, with not a scatter cushion or damask silk in sight. “He won't allow me to have mirrors, curtains or cushions but it makes a nice contrast,” she adds.
She has just finished filming If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, a four-part series for BBC4 and BBC2. In the autumn, viewers will be able to watch her presenting a quirky history of the home, in which she does everything from cooking a hedgehog to appearing naked in an Edwardian bath, although she insisted on wearing a nude-coloured bathing costume for the scenes. With her air of chatty affability, she is a TV natural.
In March, Worsley was also nominated as one of 50 women to watch in the arts. She's keen to promote women: “I was flattered, touched and honoured, and as I get older I become more of a feminist.” Although childless herself, it upsets her to see her female contemporaries with small children still being chewed up in their male-dominated workplaces. “It works until they hit 30 and then they have to make choices,” she says.
What about her, has she made a definite choice? “I don't fancy having children because they'd stop me from my career, TV, history and books, and so far they haven't appealed,” she says, adding that at least for now that is her official position. And yet one suspects, with her formidable talent and energy, no amount of children would ever hold her back.
© 2013 Lucy Worsley