Am I a scholar?

At lunchtime a few days ago, I was in the staff room at Kensington Palace and browsing through ‘History Today’. This caught my eye, and I sat down to read…

‘In recent decades few fields of historical inquiry have produced as rich a body of work as the British Civil Wars. Sarah Mortimer offers a guide to the latest scholarship.’

I was enjoying the update on Conrad Russell and John Morrill and all that lot, when I was rather thrilled to discover, half-way through, that Sarah Mortimer mentions my own book on the seventeenth century, Cavalier, A Tale of Passion, Chivalry and Great Houses.

Part of my surprise is the genuine astonishment that I still feel that ANYONE has EVER read ANY of my books.   But I was also surprised that anyone could mention Cavalier in a review of scholarship.

Despite the fact that it was based on my PhD thesis, scholarship was the last thing on my mind when I wrote my first proper book.  I was much keener to entertain, to paint a picture of a lost world, and to share the pleasure I’d felt myself in exploring the life of William Cavendish the dissolute Royalist duke.

To slip in a little learning lightly was my goal, and for Cavalier, I’d deliberately sought a commercial, not an academic publisher because … that’s just who I am.  In America, where they have more explicit labels, I’d be called a ‘public historian’, rather than an ‘academic historian’ who works in a university.  Personally, I don’t think that sharing knowledge is in any way less noble or worthwhile than acquiring knowledge.  To me, it’s just as important.  Not more, not less.  Just equal.  Keith Thomas disagrees with me there, but each to his or her own.

However, seeing my own work mentioned in Sarah Mortimer’s survey got me thinking about those four years of PhD research, as I also seem to have read endless articles over the last few weeks saying that PhDs in the humanities are a waste of time.

During the time I spent on mine, the business of sniffing out evidence and citing sources in order to build an argument became second nature, and I’ll never break free of that.

However, when I look back at Cavalier today, it may indeed be scholarly, but it seems to me to be a little too dense in detail.  (Having said that, people who’ve enjoyed it tell me that it’s the detail that they relish.)  I can certainly say that no one else alive has given as much thought as I have, for example, to exactly what William Cavendish might have done in the first few moments after opening his eyes on the morning of 30 July 1634 (p.79). And I do still take great pleasure in the fact that I’d ferreted out just so much new stuff.

The difference between it and my next book, Courtiers, was the plotting.  I’d worked on more exhibitions and the structure and pacing that they require.  I’d been on a course in screenwriting.  Courtiers came about because I’d been thrown into the eighteenth century for my day job, which involved working on the big re-display project at Kensington Palace.  At first I found myself wandering round the Georgian age like a tourist, gawping in amazement.  The handwriting was so easy to read! There were so many sources! So much online!

But by now I had a better idea of what I wanted to find: moments of real human pain and pleasure as well as just accurate reconstructions of places and things and events.  What I’m still proudest about in Courtiers is the portrait I painted of the admirable Queen Caroline’s death, and I know that it genuinely touches some readers too.

The next step that I took was in my third book, If Walls Could Talk. I really see it as a team effort, as I learnt so much from the people I worked with on the TV series that accompanied it.  By this time, if you like, I had thrown off the shackles of my PhD. It was rather crazy to undertake such a scamper across a huge subject, but I wrote it, as I said in my acknowledgements, as a dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants.

If Walls Could Talk reads more easily than the other two, I think, and that’s because by then I’d had lots of experience of throwing together ‘pieces to camera’ (those bits in a film where I’m just talking straight at you – I always do them at the last minute to make them seem more spontaneous) and of writing newspaper articles.  Another important point here: I had a generous publisher (Faber & Faber) who stuck with me through three books while I was learning, and this is rich and rare indeed.  It’s only this month, after being in print for five years, that I’ve had a book ‘earn out’.  (This means, to the uninitiated, that it’s sold more copies than the publisher thought it would, and I’ve received my very first royalty cheque.)

If Walls Could Talk has enabled me to make contact with many, many more readers, even if I missed having characters and sources with whom and with which I could really live for a long time and get to know deeply.

As I creep nervously towards the threshold of my fourth book (more about that soon) I’ll tell you one thing for sure: whether I’m a scholar, or not a scholar, or whether I’m somewhere in between, in the final reckoning I’m still really glad I spent those four years at Sussex learning my business as a historian.  Sine qua non.

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