Lucy Worsley – ‘I want wisdom, not knowledge, from fiction’

Lucy Worsley is the author of If Walls Could Talk, and presenter of the recent BBC series of the same name. By day the Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, she writes her books at night. If Walls Could Talk is an intriguing stare through the keyholes of the bedrooms, bathrooms and living rooms of the past – an intimate history of home life.

Welcome, Lucy. Can you describe your hands on approach to history?

It’s what curators do. We touch things, we pick things up, we try to learn from the thing itself – unlike a documentary historian might. So I’m used to doing that and also it seemed a good idea from the television point of view. The production team thought it would be fun to show stuff really happening, to get in touch with the nitty-gritty, dirty detail of life in houses of the past.

What is the difference in exploring history through things rather than texts?

A written document takes you into somebody’s mind. But it can only take you into the mind of somebody who can write – and for much of history, most of the people couldn’t write. So we can only get a sense of their world through their things. And this is the job of archaeology and of art history – to understand the world through things. I really enjoyed looking at the medieval period, where practically nobody could write, really – but still we were learning about what peoples’ lives were really like by looking at their houses. And that’s true even up into the twentieth century. You can still learn through things.

The book moves from the medieval to the relatively modern. Was it difficult for you as an academic to mix periods in that way?

Leaping about between the centuries is a hugely challenging thing to do because you’re terrified of putting a foot wrong, if your expertise is rooted in a particular century. I did my PhD on the 17c, then I did a book about Kensington Palace that involved a lot of research into the 18c. But as well I got confidence from the historic royal palaces because our sites and collections go from the Norman white tower at the Tower of London to the apartments of Princess Margaret, who only died in 2003, at Kensington Palace. So as curators we have to be quite bold, we have to talk about the broad sweep of history and try to draw out big patterns and draw big pictures for people.

The seventeenth-century writer Margaret Cavendish, sitting at her desk in her private closet, her ideas swirling round her head. How much work was the book?

How much time did the book take to write? 

An awful lot. But I am insanely energetic. It came out on April 1st, April Fool’s day which felt very appropriate. It was two solid years really, of writing. I wrote half of it then we did our filming and I wrote the other half of it. The actual experience – the four weeks of going out, visiting houses, talking to people – was hugely brilliant research.

Have you become unembarrassable?

I didn’t used to be but I developed a thick skin. You have to, for television when you’re dressing up in different costumes or saying an inane-sounding piece to the camera for the fifteenth time. I don’t find the subject matter – the close stool, the Victorian sanitary towel – embarrassing because I know that most people are actually really interested in the those things.

Do you think that women are particularly interested in ‘intimate history’?

I feel that it’s a gender neutral topic but it is true that you can learn a lot about women’s lives through it, and these are people who are often under-represented in documentary sources. That’s something I’m particularly interested in. If you think about the ‘housewife’ – even today it’s used as a pejorative shorthand for a voiceless person. So I’m very glad to bring those people back to life from history if we can.


History is currently very popular. Why is that, do you think?

Looking back is always going to be enjoyable. But it will perhaps be more enjoyable for more people in times of particular uncertainty or economic change, which clearly we’re experiencing at the moment. Day visits are at an all time high in our case, because people can’t afford to go on holiday – they take a day out in London instead. Exchange rates are really bringing tourists to Britain and history is a big part of the attraction of that. There’s a security in looking back and thinking ‘this too will pass.’

Are you trying to redefine what matters, in history?

In one sense, I’m just out to have a good time and entertain people. But the other side of that is intimate history, intimate details, do matter. And hierarchy and power and status are expressed through these tiny, tiny things. For example, I used in my introduction the questions – what have you got in your fridge? And who cleans your fridge? Everyone’s going to have a different answer, that’s going to reveal a huge amount about where they fit into society.

I have a political agenda, as everybody does. Mine happens to be expressed through trying to make people think differently about their lives through drawing out examples from other times. To make them realise that things are not always going to be the same, that good times come and good times go, that things that appear dreadful aren’t going to go on for ever. And that other things that look like advances are not necessarily all they’re cracked up to be. That there are some things that were better in the past.

What is your view on non-historians writing about the past? Does it bother you, that they may get it wrong?

No, because people read novels for the truth about the human experience. They don’t read it to learn what kind of shoelaces Henry V111 had. Or if they are doing that, they’re reading it for the wrong reason and they ought to understand that it’s made up.

But if the shoelaces are wrong, it reduces the credibility of the story?

It would be desirable if the shoelaces were correct but that’s to miss the point of fiction – to complain that it’s inaccurate. Historians can’t know for an absolute fact what it was like. A big fault of historical fiction is that sometimes it gets bogged down and people don’t want all that kind of detail. I want wisdom, not knowledge, from fiction.

You have written about the politics of hair. Your bob and the little hair clip are your signature look – what does it signify?

I admire the blithe optimism of the 1920s. And that’s what I want to express through my haircut.

If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley is published by faber and faber, price £20.00
ISBN 978-0-571-25952-6

All illustrations from If Walls Could Talk

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