An interview in Good Housekeeping to celebrate THE AUSTEN GIRLS

To celebrate the publication of THE AUSTEN GIRLS, my friends at Good Housekeeping magazine have kindly run an interview with me conducted by the imitable Ella Dove … thank you! 

She makes no apology for dressing up to make history more interesting, and here Lucy Worsley talks to Ella Dove about her passion for the past, female ambition, and being stood up by Johnny Depp.

Deep within the sprawling labyrinth of Hampton Court Palace lies a little wooden door.  At first glance, it appears unremarkable, but it is here, at the top of turret, that Lucy Worsley, chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, can be found.  That is when she’s not penning books or ‘larking around on the television in a stupid costume’ – her words, not mine – presenting her iconic history programme, which she films for the BBC.

She greets me with a wide, open smile.  With yellow leather glove-clad hands, she types a code into an incongruously modern keypad on the ancient stone wall and a hidden door clicks open.  ‘I hope you’re okay with steps,’ says Lucy.  ‘There are 51 here.  We often have to give people 10 minutes to catch their breath when they reach the top.’  She turns and skips up said staircase with the ease of someone who has done so a thousand times before.

To my slight disappointment, Lucy is not dressed as a Georgian lady or a Victorian housemaid, nor is she sporting the full Anne Boleyn costume complete with warts and an extra finger that she wore on her recent BBC Four show Royal History’s Biggest Fibs With Lucy Worsley.  Instead, she’s a picture of 21st-century chic.  ‘We’ll have tea in the library,’ she says.  She shepherds me into a small cosy room.  Books and files line the walls, and there is a sense of organised chaos.  As she pours the tea, I feel like I’ve stepped into a Jane Austen novel.  And well I might, for we’re here in part to discuss Lucy’s latest book for children, The Austen Girls, which explores the novelist’s life from the perspective of her nieces.

So why Austen in particular?  ‘I’m on a stealth mission to make girls interested in history,’ she says.  ‘Jane Austen lived in a repressed hierarchical society, where the expectation was purely for her to get married.  But instead, she decided to become a writer.  I want to show girls that they, too, can overcome the barriers of life and do something important.  I’m know I’m not to say my books are just for girls, but they kind of are.  Boys have other advantages in life.’

As a child, Lucy always had her head in a book.  ‘My way into what I do now was reading historical novels,’ she says. But initially, her father, a geologist, convinced her to take science A levels.  After a term, her mother noticed she was unhappy.  ‘My father was furious when I switched to history,’ she recalls.  ‘He said if I did a history degree, I’d end up cleaning toilets for a living.  He’s so fed up of being reminded of that because it has become a sort of stick that I beat him with.’

Lucy read ancient and modern history at Oxford.  In 1995, she began her career as a curator at Milton Manor House, in nearby Abingdon, going on to work as an inspector of historic buildings for English Heritage while also completing her doctorate.  She became chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces in 2003, and was approached by the History Channel in 2009 to present her first TV show, Inside the Body of Henry VIII.  As well as her four-book young adult series, she has written a multitude of historical guidebooks and biographies.  In 2018, she was awarded an OBE for services to history and heritage.

Her passion for history shines with every sentence.  ‘I never tire of coming to work’, she enthuses.  ‘There are around 1,324 rooms here and, at lunchtime every day, I try to explore a different one.  There’s always something to discover.’  Slipping into guide-mode, she tells me the rooms in which we are sitting were originally built for baby Edward VI – Henry VIII’s much-wanted son – but were burnt in a fire in the 19th century.  ‘It’s a Victorian rebuilding of a Tudor room,’ she says precisely, a stickler for detail.

When I tell her I trust her explanation, she shakes her head like a cross teacher.  ‘Well, you shouldn’t, she reprimands with a twinkle in her eye.  ‘The attitude of historians, of questioning the world, is an important life skill.’  Once, she tells me, she showed actor Tom Hiddleston around Hampton Court Palace and she was dismayed by his lack of questions.  ‘The only thing he asked me was, ‘Are there any ghosts?’’  She gives an impish smile.  ‘I could tell her wasn’t really interested, so I just said, ‘Yes’!’

And is the palace haunted?  ‘I don’t believe in ghosts because they don’t exist,’ she responds in that schoolteacher tone.  ‘I’m much more afraid of serial killers!  Saying that, I’m fascinated by why people think they’ve seen ghosts.  The palace is steeped in so much history that you do feel the weight of that as you walk about, but I think that’s a friendly feeling, not a scary one.’

So what is it she loves most about history?  ‘Some people might be snobbish about me dressing up and say, ‘Oh no, that’s not proper historical enquiry,’ she wags her finger in imitation.  ‘I disagree.  The only criticism I take seriously is when people ask, ‘Would they make a man do this?  Is it a gender thing and, therefore, is it acceptable? I think the entertainment is like a gateway drug, the marijuana of history – you can then get addicted to more serious things later,’ says Lucy.  ‘Oh dear!’ she exclaims suddenly, shaking her head.  ‘This is very unfortunate.  I’m using drug analogies.  I’ll try to keep things clean from now on.’

‘Naughty’ though it may be, it is phrasing like this that encapsulates Lucy’s effortless and unique charm; knowledge underpinned by infectious humour.  ‘I’m an advocate of anything that brings history to the mainstream,’ she says. ‘Generally, the nitty-gritty of how people lived their daily lives is what people are interested in.  Plus, it appeals to my narcissistic love of dressing up.’

Lucy seldom mentions her husband, architect Mark Hines.  ‘He’s asked me not to talk about him and I have to respect that,’ she explains.  In fact, the only time she refers to Mark is when she tells me how she once ditched him for Johnny Depp.  ‘His agent requested an after-hours tour of Hampton Court because he was here filming, but I was meant to be meeting Mark at a party that night,’ she says.  ‘I waited until 8pm when I was told that Johnny was tired and had gone home.  The wretched man stood me up!’

Her decision not to have children has also been widely commented upon.  ‘I was naïve when I said that,’ she admits.  ‘I never thought it would offend anyone, but it did.  A lot of my friends are also childless by choice.  I think it’s because growing up in the 1970s, our mothers had been expected to have children.  So, as a reaction to that, they drummed into us the important of career.  These days, there’s more ambivalence, but I still think it’s a sacrifice in terms of time, earning power and status in society.  Something has to give, but it’s wrong that it has to give more for women than men.  I’ve had the privilege of being able to dedicate myself to my work in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I’d had kids.’

She feels a duty to proclaim herself as ambitious ‘because ambition is considered to be a dirty word for women.   In fact, I once had a letter of complaint that said, ‘I don’t like that Lucy Worsley, she’s clearly ambitious.’  Funnily enough, it was from a man.

Lucy is certainly driven.  When she’s not curating or filming, she’s writing her books in the evenings and on the train to work, running, cooking, or ‘taking in the air’ in London’s parks.  ‘I like to be in motion,’ she muses.

Does she feel optimistic about the future?  ‘I do.  I think you have to be,’ she says.  ‘History leaves you with a sense that nothing is inevitable.  The past is not a guide to the future and sometimes things go backwards, but history shows us that it doesn’t have to be the way it is.  Once you appreciate that everything changes all the time, ther eis hope that maybe the world will be better again, one day.’

The Austen Girls (Bloomsbury Children’s Books) by Lucy Worsley is out now.

 

20 thoughts on “An interview in Good Housekeeping to celebrate THE AUSTEN GIRLS

  1. Brandie Johns

    I love your documentaries! My friends and I are looking forward to it erring in the US. Thanks for all the work you do!

    Reply
  2. Alan

    Lucy,

    As always am sure the programmes will be excellent, you always put on a good show. But, don’t you think the whole Henry the VIII thing has been done to death? I’m a Tudor fan but even I’m getting fed up with the seemingly endless concentration on Henry’s wives etc.

    Reply
    1. Francesca

      Worth it just to see the letters in the Vatican and to have a more factual and less sensationalist view of what’s got to be one of the most pivotal moments in British and European history. There never been a reign quite like it. And Lucy’s presenting it.

    2. (Yet another) Alan

      Alan – remember that, as a historian, the saying goes that the more you know, the more there is to know, and the more you want to know. Having watched the first 2 episodes of the series it is so well done and so well acted (including the self-confessed ‘wench’) that I’ll be disappointed when it comes to an end next week (although the ‘end’ which some of HVIII’s wives suffered is a different story altogether !)

  3. Sherice Julien

    Absolutely loving this series! I have been missing your documentaries. I also had no idea that you could read french! Best wishes!

    Reply
  4. anthony bennett

    I disagree, we can never hear enough about Henry, one of English history’s most fascinating characters. I just saw the opening episode and it was brilliant, well done to Lucy for making our history so fascinating and entertaining.

    Reply
  5. stan upcraft

    well done Lucy i enjoyed the first episode and i,m looking forward to watching the second tonight. Stan.

    Reply
  6. Carole

    Lucy, it’s fabulous. A really thoroughly researched and sincere portrayal of Anne Boleyn and the others, as aired so far in your series. Very enjoyable and excellent performances by yourself and the others who portray the known historical characters.

    Reply
  7. Paul

    Enjoying the Henry’s six wives series.You have made it interesting from the wives’ view and by taking the viewer back to the Tudor Court. Love your ‘wenching’!
    Well presented.

    Reply
  8. Jacquie Denyer

    Well, personally I can’t get enough of this period of history and would loved to have seen more of the love letters held by The Vatican. I always thought they’d been kept from the public eye so was delighted to see you have access to them. I studied this period of history as a teenager, for A levels and my degree – I’m sure I’m not alone in being fascinated by this period of history and this series offers the information from a unique perspective. Love it! Thank you Lucy.

    Reply
  9. Debbie Crabbe

    What I like about these programmes is that you are presenting a different interpretation of the facts of history ~ which is thought provoking; I have to say that the Tudors are endlessly fascinating!

    Reply
  10. stan upcraft

    Well done again Lucy i,ve found these programs very interesting, particularly the cloths that were worn all those years ago. Keep it up.
    Stan

    Reply
  11. graham EVERITT

    was hoping we might see something about Nonsuch palace with this episode about Ann Boleyn but a great show anyway.Thanks Lucy.

    Reply
  12. Lilly

    Hi Lucy Worsley! Im a really big fan of your work, but, I’m kind of dissapointed by the fact that your shows only run in America and Britain. I don’t know how TV stuff works, but I would really love it if your shows could run in Australia. Thank You!

    Reply
  13. Alain

    I just watched the last episode and found it fascinating.
    The historical facts are presented in a playful way.
    I truly like when Lucy visits the places where the events took place. I wish we had that standard of history programs here in Belgium.
    Well done.

    Reply
  14. Dean Rowell

    Great to see Hampton Court Palace as your HQ in ‘Six Wives’ I like the idea of talking to audiences whilst you are on scene.This reminds me of the ‘Saint’ with Simon Templar and later ‘Lovejoy’ with Ian McShane. Best wishes!

    Reply
  15. DemelzaFey

    I’ve just finished watching the series and I absolutely loved every second!
    I’m a 20-something year old with a passion for history who has always regretted not taking her own studies further. Your books and series have always been a firm favourite and you keep my passion for knowledge alive! Thank you so much!!
    (Also, your yellow coat is stunning!)

    Reply
  16. Holly

    Loved this series Lucy!
    Always been fascinated by the story of Henry and his 6 wives and it was great to have a fresh angle on it.
    I particularly enjoyed seeing you on set as you took the audience with you into the heart of the events as they unfolded. I also enjoyed finding out about more about Henry’s later wives, as the focus traditionally has always been on Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn.
    Look forward to more historical documentaries presented by you!

    Reply
  17. An Glorieux

    I have just “discovered” you through some videos on Youtube and I am absolutely addicted now to your storytelling, haha!
    I think the style in which Six Wives was made is just so fun and witty–I was captivated the whole series through. I want all of history to be presented in this way! 🙂 Thank you!

    Reply
  18. Matthew Simpson

    Fabulous, Two documentaries in one year! Six wives and British History’s biggest fibs are great examples of how modern Television Can be done really well. Truly Addictive! Looking forward to The Austria Documentary!

    Reply

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