'Let's make history sexy', interview in The Radio Times, 28 April 2012
Lucy Worsley isn't afraid to talk about Nell Gwyn's nipples - or wash clothes in urine - if it helps people love the past...
I am tripping through Hampton Court Palace with TV's latest history star, Dr Lucy Worsley. Demure of face, bobbed of hair, sedate of skirt, the 38-year-old chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces is showing me around Hampton Court's latest exhibition.
'The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned', currently hanging in Queen Anne's suite of rooms, is all about the mistresses of Charles II. Dr Worsley joyously rushes up to a fairly dull landscape painting that she tells me Charles II would show off to his visitors in his chamber. 'But immediately after, he would reveal this', enthuses my guide. We walk around the picture to discover a glorious portrait of a naked Nell Gwyn reclining across the canvas, which hangs above a double bed.
'He had this picture above his bed, just like this'. Goodness. Is that the real royal bed. 'No', says Worsley, momentarily crest-fallen. 'I wish it was. I love this picture though. We have her on the posters in the Tube, although for some reason we had to cover her nipples up with a bit of cloth’.
This is a typical Worsley anecdote. Outwardly prim, with a naughty streak. Like her neat, gripped-back blonde hair, which looks conventional enough until you get close up and notice that it’s dip-dyed black at the ends.
The story of her doctorate is very telling. ‘It was on ‘The Architectural Patronage of William Cavendish, first Duke of Newcastle’, 1593-1676’. After, I turned it into my first book’. She pauses. ‘Obviously the title had to be sexed up a bit’. Obviously. And so the august PhD became Cavalier: The Story of a 17th Century Playboy.
Here, in a nutshell, is the reason why Lucy Worsley has become the female face of history programmes and the reason television loves her. She has an utterly scholarly background but is a natural adherent to the fact that once you take history outside academia, it needs sexing up a bit.
‘I’m not worried about being accused of sexing things up. I am very happy to use Nell Gwyn’s nipples as a way of enticing people in. Once they are here, we will wham them with a bit of 17th-century court politics’.
We carry on through the exhibition, the learned Worsley chucking out dates and anecdotes, and pointing out fascinating items: here a fruit knife supposedly belonging to Gwyn herself, there a ‘patch box’ holding beauty spots which women would use to disguise blemishes on their faces. It is a huge treat since she is, quite simply, a brilliant communicator.
‘It’s how I see television’, she says simply. ‘Standing and talking about things. That’s all it is’.
She looks down at the cabinets with awe, as if the items within hold some form of almost religious power. ‘I have always liked ‘things’. They open up windows in your mind, show you that things haven’t always been the way that they are now, and reveal so much about how people fit into society’.
Or not. She tells me about a 17th century warming pan currently residing in the Worsley home, which she shares with her partner, architect Mark Hines.
‘Do you know about the scandal surrounding the heir of James II?’ I confess I don’t, but she kindly fills me in on the shocker. It apparently hinged on the unlikely notion that when James’s second wife was in labour, her own child died and an imposter was smuggled into the royal birthing suite. In a warming pan.
‘In fact there were 45 people in the Queen’s bedchamber to prove that a true heir had been born and it did survive. Anyway, what we proved with this warming pan was that you can’t fit a baby in a warming pan. They are too big!’
It’s a classic Worsley story: actual historian events given life by a whiff of scandal and of course, her own speciality, historical re-enactment. She once washed all her clothes in urine, because the Tudors did. Although in the case of the warming pan, she did not try to squash her own offspring within, since Dr Worsley has rather famously ‘self-elected’ not to have children.
‘It seems to fascinate people. I have become the poster girl for opting out of reproduction. I am happy to stand up and be counted, however’.
Why did she decide to remain child-free? ‘I just had other priorities for what I wanted to do with my time’, she says primly. ‘It’s a countercultural thing to do. And I quite enjoy being part of beleaguered minority. I have been educated out of the natural reproductive function. I get to spend my time doing things I enjoy. I don’t think my life is wasted’. Do lots of her friends try to convert her? ‘All the time’.
It’s difficult to see how she could possibly fit babies in anyway. As it is, she has to juggle her position at the Historic Royal Palaces alongside a blistering amount of television gigs that have seen her barely off the screen during the past year. Her latest is a series called Antiques Uncovered.
‘It’s like Antiques Roadshow’, says Worsley, ‘but with fewer objects, and more detail about them’. For someone so fixated on the power of historical items, this sounds like Worsley’s dream project. ‘The items come from collectors or historic houses, and are themed under headings such as Entertainment, Ceremony or Travel. Actually the show on Travel includes my favourite item’. Which is? ‘A Louis Vuitton folding jungle bed’, says Worsley with relish.
After Antiques Uncovered will come another series, on women in the 17th century. She says it was during the Restoration of Charles II that modern woman was born.
‘At the court of Charles II there is this whole parade of royal mistresses, yes, but they get really considerable political influence. Women are getting ahead. There was a liberated lascivious burst of colour’.
She likes to think of herself as a feminist historian. ‘I am very interested in women in history. I do have a strong sense that they need to be put back. That is something I have always been passionate about doing. And the past is never just the past. It always has a bearing on the present. If you think about the relationship between Charles II and his mistresses, you can’t help thinking about what this means today. Is it all right for women to get along by using their bodies? How much make-up should they wear?’
Should the history of women always be mediated by women? ‘Not necessarily. There are some very good male historians on the subject. I recently interviewed one from Sheffield who is terrific on 17th-century prostitutes’, she says, laughing. She can’t help it. Sex and scholarship. They hold hands right through the Worsley oeuvre. ‘It’s legitimate to talk about nipples is you are talking about it for a reason’, is her stand. ‘And it makes the world a better place’.
This is the other fascinating skein in the Lucy Worsley tapestry, namely a fervent belief in history’s moral quality. That you will be a better human being if you visit Hampton Court. Or the Tower of London, the Palaces of Kew and Kensington, or the Banqueting House, to list all five of the Historic Royal Palaces.
‘Coming here and having a good time will give people a new perspective on their own lives. It will make them wiser. More tolerant. More empathetic. They will have better skills and judgment and they will be happier’.
Does she fear she goes too far? Washing clothes in urine, all that sort of caper? ‘Not really. When I think there are too many people interested in history, then maybe I’ll back off and calm down and stop trying to sell it as hard as I do’.
With that she strides off, probably to research some more nipples.
© 2013 Lucy Worsley