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Monday, April 6, 2009

Are there too many women in history - or too few?

Last week David Starkey, who non-co-incidentally has a new TV programme starting this week on King Henry VIII, commented on the way in which history has been feminised by female authors who concentrate on Henry’s wives rather than on the King himself, a situation which Dr Starkey apparently finds “bizarre.” To quote: “But it's what you expect from feminised history, the fact that so many of the writers who write about this are women and so much of their audience is a female audience. Unhappy marriages are big box office.” Earlier this month Dr Starkey said he believed Henry VIII's handwriting showed he had an "emotionally incontinent" personality because he was brought up in a female-dominated household.

Dr Starkey has never made much secret of the fact that he enjoys being outrageously provocative so I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise. What is a surprise is that these comments don’t strike me as being particularly scholarly. Let’s start with the emotionally incontinent bit, shall we? I’m not convinced Henry was emotionally incontinent. Yes, he could be sentimental. Yes, he had a marvellous capacity for believing himself to be in love and an even greater talent for conveniently falling out of love when it suited him. His emotional acrobatics when justifying getting rid of his wives are an object lesson in self-delusion. But even if he was “emotionally incontinent” this would not be because he was brought up in a female-dominated household. There’s no unavoidable cause and effect here. Not every man brought up in a female household becomes emotionally incontinent. Such an idea would be absurd. I might as well claim that Henry was a violent man who resorted to judicial murder because he had been brought up to enjoy violent sports. As I say, completely absurd.

Now that remark about the feminisation of history leading to a disproportionate amount of interest in Henry’s wives and their unhappy marriages at the expense of poor old Henry himself. Hmmm. Well, I would never wish to generalise as Dr Starkey appears to have done here, but yes, I agree that the intricacies of relationships, their development and break down, have always fascinated me. Yes, I enjoy reading and writing about them. Yes, I am a woman. So… Oh, hold on… that simply must mean that I can only be interested in Henry in relation to his wives and the failure of his marriages! What nonsense. I’m interested in history, Dr Starkey, in all shapes and forms. That’s why books about the Thirty Years War sit on my shelves alongside books about Anne Boleyn. Please don’t patronise me.

As a public historian I see nothing wrong at all in writing about women and their role in history after several milennia in which white males wrote for and about white males. Public history seeks to discover and give a voice to the history of those who have been ignored, be they women, children, slaves or any other. Dr Starkey also claims that “to paint many women in history as "power players" was to falsify the facts.” I would suggest that women have always exerted a powerful influence throughout history. It’s a tribute to their skill in doing so that some historians haven’t even noticed.


Michelle Styles said...

The key words are David Starkey, new television programme and trying to be outrageously provocative.

The truth of the matter is that there are far fewer women historians on television and in the popular media than there are men. I believe Bethany Hughes is the only woman historian who regualrly fronts her own history programmes.
Henry VIII's wives have always fascinated. This is mainly because they are instrumental in helping achieve the break with Rome.
Starkey's remarks also do not gel with the many books on St Thomas Moore, Cardinal Woolsey and other men of the period.

Nicola Cornick said...

Very true, Michelle. I remember David Starkey saying that when he was on The Moral Maze he deliberately made comments that were as provocative as possible. People like that can be very wearing.

It can also be counter-productive as I was planning on watching the Henry VIII programme but now I won't because I have been provoked *too* far. I can find Dr Starkey's presentational style too simplistic anyway, ie sometimes presenting as "fact" things that are actually conjecture or interpretation. I remember my grandmother ringing me up after one of his programmes (which I think was on the Wives of Henry VIII(!)) and saying "I'm sure some of the things he was saying aren't true!"

Your comment about the influence Henry's wives had in achieving the break with Rome serves to emphasise the point that women *are* influential in history. And often when they are - like Elizabeth of Bohemia, for example - they are useful to *blame* for things!!

Kate Hardy said...

Would this be as in "I have a new TV programme and I want more people to watch it. If I make outrageous comments, people will talk about my programme and my ratings will go up, and I'll get another series...?"

I'd love to hear what he thinks of the comperta of Legh and Ap Rice. :)

Susan Flanders, Writer of Queens said...

Henry VIII imortalized Anne Boelyn by cutting her head off! And then he did the same thing to another wife! Oh, there's a reason we are fascinated by the wives and marriages because we'll always wonder...WHY? It has nothing to do with feminizing history. I suspect he is trying to generate some publicity for his new show...