Lucy Worsley... the history woman
Lucy Worsley (©Historic Royal Palaces, Bloomsbury, Ben Turner)
Lucy Worsley OBE is well-placed to become a national treasure. Indeed, as Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, she is responsible for inspecting and maintaining our national treasures, in royal sites such as the Tower of London, Kew Palace and Kensington Palace. But it is dressing up in historical garb to present lively TV history programmes – such as Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency – that has brought her national recognition. She is also a prolific author, bringing her trademark wit and energy to every period from the Tudors through to the Victorians’ obsession with murder. In her new book, Lucy Worsley turns her attention to arguably the most famous Victorian of them all, Queen Victoria.
You describe your new book as following Queen Victoria’s transformation from Dancing Queen to potato?
I was a bit rude saying that, but we do all have this image of her – an old lady in black, a bit like a jacket potato. But then there’s another group of people who’ve seen that ITV drama, Victoria, and think of her as Jenna Coleman. Those two mindsets and images exist, and I know this as one of our Historic Royal Palaces sites is Kensington Royal Palace, where Queen Victoria was born and grew up. We get a lot of visitors, and they all seem to have one of these two perceptions. I wanted to tell the story of how she went from one to the other.
You work in the heartland of British history. Was it also that being surrounded by so many royal personal possessions and state symbols made you want to tell a more nuanced story of Queen Victoria’s life?
I’ve wanted to write about her ever since I was a little girl, because she had an inherently dramatic childhood, becoming Queen at just 18 years old. But more lately, I often have meetings in the room at Kensington Palace where Victoria slept as a little girl. And it was in that room where she was woken on the morning of 20 June 1837 to be told that her uncle, William IV, had died in the night, and she had been Queen for the last five hours. The book is divided into 24 chapters, each an important day in Victoria’s life. For each chapter, I visited the place where it happened. It’s an important part of this history that I do – places as well as people.
It shocked me to read how powerless Victoria was.
She was surprisingly powerless. I always imagine her life as a trap: something she hadn’t chosen, something she didn’t particularly enjoy and something she felt a man would have done better. That said, she did manage to stand up to the pressure pretty well – she had enormous mental strength and resilience. Probably in the same way that the present Queen does. But I’m not sure it’s a life anybody would have chosen for themselves. In fact, if a handsome prince asked me to marry him, I would say, ‘No thanks’. I’d know it wasn’t a good deal.
Victoria’s childhood sounds awful. Her father, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, died when she was a baby, and her mother, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, was left completely broke and under the power of Sir John Conroy. Victoria grew up simultaneously isolated and underfed while being hot-housed to become the future Queen of England.
I hope I’m going to change a few people’s minds about her mum, because I actually have a tremendous soft spot for her. Normally history books portray her as a manipulative baddy – Conroy’s creature, cruel to her daughter – but what really changed my mind was reading her diary, which is so poignantly loving. The day Victoria becomes Queen, her mother writes in her diary: ‘If only she knew how much I love her and want the best for her’. It just breaks your heart, because Victoria at that stage is too selfish to see it.
But that selfishness has to be a survival technique? The shrewd emotional intelligence you later talk about, has to be a response to growing up in such an unnaturally controlling environment?
Yes. In fact, I think of Albert and Victoria as being the yin and the yang: he’s got the traditional intellectual intelligence, she’s got the emotional intelligence that hasn’t been valued much until recent times. It kills me to read books from 30 or 40 years ago that describe her as being weak, overly guided by her emotions and basically not up to the job. In fact, the way that she acted as Queen was perfect for the circumstances. Because, in the 19th century, Britain had a constitutional monarchy. So the monarchy no longer had power, but it did have influence. Albert thought he had power; he’d go around telling people what to do, and that didn’t work at all. What Victoria did was show people that she cared – and that was enormously effective. And enormously good for the institution of the monarchy. It’s sort of carried on that way today; the monarchy can’t tell us what to do, but they do have the power to make people feel better about themselves.
Another modern idea she seemed to grasp was the concept of ‘Brand Victoria’.
Oh, she was so good at that. I can imagine another life where she would have been editor of really successful women’s pages in a mass-market newspaper, identifying what millions of women would want to read about. She was so good at things like expressing her grief for Albert in a way that people could sympathise with. Dressing in black for the rest of her life… this seems weird to us now, but there are many reasons for her to have done it. Firstly, nowadays when you’re a widow, you’re not expected to look or act differently from anyone else; you’re just expected to get over it. But Victorians didn’t see it like that. They felt widows deserved special consideration and treatment. And another reason it was cool that Victoria dressed in black for the rest of her life was that it was comfortable! These loose, baggy clothes – she didn’t have to worry about fashion. And lastly, as you say, wearing black was terrific visual branding; everyone knew what the Queen looked like, because she always looked the same.
And she took how to present herself seriously from a young age. You paint a heart-breaking picture of her as a lonely child, just her dolls for company and using them to practise how to behave at court receptions. And so, of course, when – three weeks after she turned 18 – she became Queen, she was able to walk into a state room full of very senior men and play the part to perfection.
I love that moment. It’s so satisfying, when she emerges at Kensington Palace as Queen. And the Duke of Wellington said of that moment, ‘She not only filled the chair, she filled the room’. How great is that – eighteen years old!
Queen Victoria was a prolific diarist – often writing up to 4,000 words a night – and you included them in your research material. I was fascinated by your observation, though, that diaries were like unexploded hand grenades; you would be seriously compromised if the wrong people got hold of the information they contained. To the point that Victoria’s grandmother, Queen Charlotte, on her deathbed in Kew Palace, was trying to get back to Kensington Palace to destroy hers. And Victoria’s daughter Beatrice rewrote some of Queen Victoria’s diaries then destroyed the originals. In your research, how much did you feel you could rely on these diaries?
I think Queen Victoria knew we would be reading her diaries one day. They grew out of a diary her mother made her write when she was very young called a ‘Behaviour Book’. Every day, she was meant to write down how she had behaved and her mother would judge that behaviour. It also grew out of the religious Nonconformist diary tradition – that you put your life out there for God to judge. But yes, historians do have to think about this every time they handle a new book; you have to check them against other sources to make sure things haven’t been left out. And things definitely were; some of the quarrels and nasty scenes that I picked out in the book weren’t in the diaries, they put a positive spin on everything.
Your role as Historic Royal Palaces curator gives you privileged access to a huge number of little-seen royal artefacts. Other than (I hear) handling Queen Victoria’s giant pants, where else did you turn for your research?
I’ve handled a lot of her clothes, actually. Last summer, a colleague and I did a project where we measured the dimensions of every surviving piece of Victoria’s clothing we could get our hands on – about 150 items in total. We wanted to track her changing shape over time, to see if we could diagnose any interesting health problems. And we are just in the process of getting some wonderful new loans for an exhibition that will run next year at Kensington Palace, to mark the 200 years since her birth, on 24 May 2019. The exhibition will be divided into two parts: her early life growing up in the various rooms at Kensington Palace; and the second part looking at her life from wife to the end – so wife, mother, widow, grandmother, empress.
You suggest that Queen Victoria was arguably one of history’s most influential monarchs, as when she died she ruled over nearly a quarter of the world. How did she feel about being an empress?
It was very important to her, not least because she wanted to be on a par with the other emperors of Europe, like the Tsar of Russia, and increasingly the Kaiser, as he went around snapping up more and more territory. But it’s not something that she personally had much control over. For example, she became Empress of India due to a sequence of accidents. The British East India Company had been engaged in India for commercial reasons, and not done a very good job of it. There had been the First War of Indian Independence – or the Indian Mutiny as it used to be called – and that’s when the British government thought, OK, the British are not doing this right; we need to step in, try to take over and do the best we can. Disraeli used this fact as a means of buttering Queen Victoria up, asking, ‘Wouldn’t you like to be an empress?’ But from a practical point of view it meant that Queen Victoria tried to find out about India, with the help of her Urdu teacher, Abdul Karim, for example.
And she invited Maharajah Duleep Singh over from India to stay, which gave her an insight into the life of India’s royalty.
That poor boy, I really feel for him. He seems one of the perfect casualties of colonialism. He was treated in London like a human pet: snatched out of his culture; deprived of his family; expected to convert to Christianity, but still expected to go around wearing his turban and looking ‘exotic’… He lived a very unhappy and displaced life.
The Daily Telegraph has described you as ‘a storyteller who loves the intimate details of grand events, however visceral or embarrassing’. Is that fair?
Well, I am a child at heart, but it comes from being a museum curator; I know what people want to hear about when they visit. And it’s not the Reformation or constitutional history; they want to know where people went to the loo, how food was cooked, what kind of socks they wore... People make an emotional connection to the past through the nittygritty, personal details. Also, the illnesses of kings and queens of the past, I find that quite fascinating, not least as these are often the most well-recorded people alive at any given moment. And the health – or illness – of the king or queen actually matters, as it has political implications. So, it’s weird to think about it now, but, for example, in Henry VIII’s court, all the foreign ambassadors, all the spies, all the courtiers, they would ask the royal doctor every day, ‘How is the King, did he sleep well? Did he have a bowel movement?’ And the reason they were asking was that if he seemed ill, or if he was going to die, and if he didn’t have a male heir… there might be civil war, or a war with other countries.
You’re famous for delving into history’s dressing up box in your television series, is this your way of quite literally getting under the skin of the past?
I dress up for different programmes for different reasons, sometimes as a joke. But it’s true, sometimes historic clothing can open a little window into the past. And I say that because one of the things we look after at the Historic Royal Palaces is something called the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection – 9,000 pieces of royal costume dating back to the hat possibly worn by Henry VIII. And these items are so intimate; they give you an idea of what someone’s body was like. Also what their life was like, because the big difference between clothing of the past and clothing now is that it expressed social hierarchy. Today, a billionaire might be walking round in jeans and a hoodie, but his equivalent in the Tudor court – you would be able to tell instantly who he was, because he would be so much more expensively dressed than the rest of the rest of us. They literally wore their wealth on their backs.
What first sparked your interest in history?
Partly it was reading historical novels; as a girl, I was very fond of an author called Jean Plaidy. She inspired me later in life to write historical fiction for eleven year olds, particularly girls (though you’re not supposed to say that). The other reason I got into history was my mum taking me to historic houses. I particularly remember a place called the Weald and Downland Living Museum, in Sussex. It’s an outdoor museum where you walk through this strange village made up of all the centuries’ architecture mish-mashed together. I loved it.
Your books and television series always seem to have energetic, dramatic titles, like Cake Bakers and Trouble Makers: Lucy Worsley’s 100 years of the WI or Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A 17th-Century History for Girls. Do we have to be lured into reading or watching history, don’t we intrinsically understand that it’s interesting or fun?
I see myself as a historian for the kind of people who don’t like history. I’m the thin end of the wedge, and I think it’s entirely respectable – even noble – to class yourself as an ‘entry-level historian’. What gives me great pleasure is to entice people into the world of history and hand them onto more expert, more detailed, more profound historians. On whose work I draw! I think there’s room for all types of historians in the big history tent.
Does it frustrate you that we love our historic palaces and buildings but seem to resent the cost of maintaining them? Figures like £4b for the Palace of Westminster, £370m for Buckingham Palace, for instance, always seem to make the headlines.
The government doesn’t pay to maintain the Historic Royal Palaces, so we have to make extra efforts to make our work seem relevant, interesting and valuable. In an ideal world I’d use tax to do that, but that’s not the situation we’re in, so I have to try and make people willing to pay for these things that I think are important.
And on the flip side… the National Trust just announced a chronic over-crowding of its properties; membership has increased by a million over the last five years, due to the ‘Downton effect’. Are you seeing an almost unmanageable increase in visitor numbers at the Historic Royal Palaces, too?
Yes, this is something we talk about an awful lot. We’re exploring things like ‘dynamic entry schemes’, getting people to come at different times of day; creating new attractions in spaces like the gardens and less heavily-visited areas of the palaces. And also transferring some of our work from the ‘real’ to the ‘virtual’. For anybody working in museums now, the digital space is hugely important. We’re currently getting 4 million physical visitors a year, we could be getting 40 million virtual visitors – that’s the target we have in mind for the next few years.
Which historic item that has come across your desk – or shoulders – do you most covet?
There’s this broken brown ceramic pot which I’m tremendously fond of. It looks like nothing at all, but it was a Tudor chamber pot – or ‘pysse pot’ as they called it. And it was thrown out by some Tudor person into the privy garden at Hampton Court, where it lay for 500 years. I tell kids this when they’re looking bored, that archaeologists unearthed it, sent it off to the lab to be analysed and it came back containing traces of genuine Tudor ‘pysse’. It’s incredible.
What’s your favourite historic building overseas?
The Palace of Versailles. A lot of things to do with the British monarchy are a pale imitation of that; they really invented that hard-core, high-court culture.
Finally, is it true that your husband has forbidden you from appearing on Strictly?
It is true. When we got married, he made me sign a pre-nuptial contract. There’s only one clause in it – that I would never appear on Strictly. Partially as I think he thinks I’d get too big-headed, also that contestants have a habit of running off with their partners.