Times Magazine interview: Lucy Worsley on harlots, heroines – and being child-free
Historian Lucy Worsley discusses her own childlessness and the inspirational women who feature in her new documentary series
By his unofficial harem of mistresses, Charles II sired 13 illegitimate babies, yet his queen, Catherine of Braganza, produced not a single heir. History, as Dr Lucy Worsley reflects in her new TV series, is so driven by the continuation of bloodlines that Catherine, who could not fulfil her basic job description, was treated as a tragic figure. But if barren wives were to be pitied, what of women who opt out of the whole business of consolidating dynasties and passing on DNA, who choose not to have children?
As a historian Worsley has produced three books, two TV series and curated many exhibitions about women’s lives. She can discourse equally on royal mistresses such as Barbara Villiers, who parlayed her rouged nipples and boudoir talents into power at the Restoration court, to nameless kitchen wenches blackleading grates, which she has done herself: “You have dirty fingernails for two weeks.”
But nonetheless she was astounded by the furore caused by her comment in a recent interview that she had been “educated out of the reproductive function”.
Too brainy to breed? How very dare she. Columnists declared war. Women with Oxford firsts – like Worsley’s – wrote indignantly that they were passing on their learning to offspring with their mother’s milk. In an offhand remark, Worsley had walked into our cultural bear-pit where the debate about whether women should put work or family first never ends.
“Oh, golly!” she says of the uproar. “I was afraid there would be a queue of journalists outside my door at home, saying, ‘Look, it has come to our attention that you have maliciously refused to have children, so we’ve come round with a turkey baster and we’re going to sprog you up now – our editor insists.’ I think there is still a significant fear of a woman who chooses to remain childless.”
Her words, she says, were misinterpreted: she does not think she is too clever to have children: “I don’t want to be in any way disrespectful to mothers. I am not their enemy.” All she had meant was that growing up in the Eighties, the overriding message from her teachers and parents was, “ ‘Don’t get pregnant, finish your GCSEs.’ And for some of us, maybe that early conditioning has stuck in a way that our teachers probably didn’t intend.”
But there is a fine line, it seems, between being a good girl who studies hard and letting an excess of bookishness dry up your womanly instincts. The Daily Mail dusted down that old insult “blue stocking”, used on women intellectuals since Mary Wollstonecraft. But Worsley was only amused. “That picture that the Mail used of me has me actually wearing blue stockings! That gave me a secret pleasure.” She has become, unintentionally, a poster girl for the deliberately child- free, receiving many letters from happy unmaternal women saying, “I’m not the freak I thought I was.”
In fact, despite her taste in hosiery and her brisk rattling off of dates and facts, Worsley’s view of history could not be further from academic aridity. On TV she is noted for a keenness to dress up in bodices, remove stains from her clothes with urine or adopt a Tudor personal hygiene regime for a week.
As chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces – which includes Kensington, Hampton Court, Kew and the Tower of London – she is unashamedly populist, staging huge crowd-pleasing exhibitions on Henry VIII and the royal mistresses. Sometimes the tone seems a little awry: at Kensington Palace you don’t just learn about Victoria’s grief for Albert, you can also buy replicas of her black-edged mourning lace and jet locket in the gift shop.
But Worsley approves of any medium that will generate interest in history. As we descend a back staircase at Kensington Palace she tells me this was the route Princess Victoria took to hear the news that she would be queen. I recall that in the movie The Young Victoria we learn she always had to hold hands with a courtier in case she fell. I expect Worsley to disdain schmaltzy biopics, but she loved it. “I enjoyed The Tudors too,” she says. “It was brilliant for visitors to Hampton Court Palace. It became a big cultural craze, didn’t it?”
Serious historians have mocked her: David Starkey likened programmes such as hers to Mills & Boon. But while she respects the great august accounts of constitutional affairs or famous battles, her passion has always been for “the nitty- gritty, dirty detail of daily life”.
Worsley particularly loves a filthy fact. Her latest book, If Walls Could Talk: an Intimate History of the Home, contains the history of toilet paper and describes how the Enlightenment ruined women’s sexual pleasure: until science blew the gaff, it was believed the female orgasm was necessary for procreation.
As she ricochets around academia for her new TV series, Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: a 17th Century History for Girls, you watch weighty old minds enjoy telling this blonde, pert, exuberant young woman their best dirty bits. One Samuel Pepys scholar shows her a manuscript in which the diarist recounts that on meeting both Charles II’s queen and his current mistress he experiences a spontaneous “emission” in his trousers. Worsley blushes. “I wasn’t expecting him to say that at all.”
But her interest in bedroom romps and below-stairs toil has a serious intent. While women’s history used to be a dull, worthy and laden with grievance, Worsley brings it full of colour, energy and libido into the mainstream. “It’s quite a Seventies feminist thing to say,” she says, “but the personal is political. It’s tiny things that reveal such a lot.”
Lucy Worsley, 38, grew up in Reading. Her father is an expert in glaciers and permafrost, who tried in vain to persuade her into a scientific career. Her mother was a town planner who, after university, had resisted family pressure to return to the family shop. That early battle, made her determined her own daughter could do anything she liked. “Though she wanted me to be a barrister,” says Worsley.
As a child she was “nerdy, geeky, swotty, bookworm, spectacles, all the clichés” but with a taste for performance, “bossing everyone else around” in the school play, which explains her relish for TV dressing up. She studied history at Oxford, but knew she wasn’t interested in academia. When visiting Mompesson House in Salisbury, it dawned on her that people worked there. So after a junior job in a stately home, she rose quickly through English Heritage, before winning her current, hugely prestigious position with the Royal Palaces at just 29.
Clearly she didn’t get here without relentless hard work: she often researches through weekends, and almost every night for the past 15 years she has been out delivering lectures, drumming up interest in history, which is her passion. “History is something that isn’t the daily grind, like getting the dinner on the table or paying the mortgage. A day out in a historic house gives you a perspective on life. You start thinking, ‘Were they doing it any better than we are? What’s the right way to live?’ I’m talking about history like self-help now. But it can be spiritual, even if you’re not religious.”
When asked which period of history she would choose to visit, “I normally say after the invention of anaesthetic, in case anything went wrong. But right now I’d love to go upstairs to the king’s drawing room with all the courtiers there, as it was, on the night in 1736 when it was all coming to a head between King George II, Queen Caroline and his mistress Henrietta Howard.” It was a long-standing royal love triangle about to disintegrate when Henrietta made the unusual choice, as Worsley puts it, to “sack the king” and marry her lover, an MP.
Worsley clearly has more admiration for mistresses than queens, unless they are ruling monarchs such as Elizabeth I or Victoria. In Charles II’s court, mistresses used their sexual allure to win the king’s favour, had portraits painted naked or with bosoms tumbling from bodices and had a popular following via pamphlets that have echoes of Heat magazine. But if mistresses were smart they could, like Barbara Villiers, gain as much power as a government minister while keeping a degree of autonomy over their households. And unlike royal wives, mistresses had the power to leave.
Barbara Villiers, after her beauty had dulled, was made a duchess, remained friends with the king and received a sinecure as custodian of Hampton Court Palace. Nell Gwynn managed to ascend from orange seller to actress to the king’s pleasure: “It would be like Jordan getting together with Prince Harry,” says Worsley.
“They were climbing the ladder, using their bodies – and their brains, that’s the interesting thing to talk about – because it is so relevant today: what is acceptable, how far should you go.” I remark that television certainly expects women who have brains also to have good looks. David Starkey said sniffily that most women historians are “quite pretty”. And the BBC’s series featuring Roman historian Mary Beard – older and non-babelicious – has been called “brave” by some, while AA Gill made cruel remarks about her appearance. “Well, she is a goddess,” says Worsley. “So I am quite glad that he said that, so that everybody else could say, ‘Don’t be stupid, she’s clearly brilliant.’”
Too much close study has killed any romantic thoughts Worsley had about royalty. “If a handsome prince asked me to marry him tomorrow, I’d say no thanks,” she says, then adds, “I mean a historical one.” Working from Kensington Palace, which is half museum, half official residence for lesser royals, she occasionally meets the
Queen. I ask if Her Majesty ever shows an interest in a particular ancestor and Worsley says, “She won’t express views on a favourite monarch, period, century or style. Then the world would send her, say, Elizabeth I hot-water bottle covers for ever.”
In any case, Worsley doesn’t require a prince since she married Mark Hines, an architect, last year. They live in a modern flat near the Thames, because Lucy says she gets enough of historic buildings, their leaky roofs and woodworm, to want to live in one. Many of her friends are fellow curators. Most, like her, don’t feel the urge for children, since it is a pleasantly social job full of exhibition openings and public lectures. Just as her mother wished, Worsley is living happily just as she pleases.
I suggest the role of the deliberately childless woman in history would make an excellent book, although perhaps a slim one, since until reliable contraception, those not wishing to procreate had to remain celibate. “There were nuns, of course,” says Worsley. “And schoolteachers. But there has always been an element of weirdness about that choice.”
She notes that Elizabeth I used “the very fact of her childlessness to keep everybody guessing about who was going to inherit the throne. She had these almost ritual flirtations. ‘Oh, I’m feeling well-disposed towards France at the moment, maybe I’ll have a flirtation with a Frenchman,’ so she could send out political messages via these pseudo-relationships.”
But the childless woman Worsley most admires was not so by choice. Margaret Cavendish, the 17th-century poet and philosopher, was described as different from the rest of womankind who “have Fruitful Wombs but Barren Brains”. She wrote one of the first examples of science fiction, The Blazing World, and Worsley celebrates her originality in her new series.
“Margaret Cavendish says, ‘Although I cannot be Henry VIII or Charles I, although I haven’t got the means to change the world, yet I can create a world of my own and I will be Margaret I in that world.’ She’s brilliant. These are the women who inspire.”
The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned, an exhibition on the Stuart Court, runs until September 30 at Hampton Court Palace. Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: a 17th Century History for Girls starts on BBC Four on Tuesday