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Review: History for Girls – Lucy Worsley’s Harlots Heroines & Housewives

2012 June 6

It starts with an unfortunate throwaway statement. ‘This was an exciting time to be a woman’ says Lucy Worsley as she introduces us to the premise of Harlots, Heroines & Housewives: A Seventeenth-Century History for Girls (BBC4).

Gee… yeah, I guess the 1300s were a pretty boring time to be a woman. As for the 2000s… I’m so bored, like, all the time, nowadays, just being a woman. This is the same kind of thinking that underscores the title (which, BTW, is too long and therefore totally un-hashtagable – who does that, in this day and age? Live tweeting, like, totally ruined.). Said title also left me uncertain whether this was supposed to be a history for girls about everyone, or a herstory-style history of girls for both boys and girls, or a kind of disco-toilets-at-3am thing for girls about girls about how we’re all just the same really, we all have the same heartaches and problems and we’re all so modern why can’t we all get along.

I eventually settled on the latter, partly because I assume the title is trying to reference that whole kind of retro-Girls Own / Glorious Book for Girls type thing that I really have no right to find intrinsically a bit obnoxious but do anyway.

Granted, men and women moved in different social circles during this period, but I think all this is Worsley’s first error: she considers men and women in isolation from each other, rather than how they interact (unless, that, is, they’re ‘interacting’ with the king’s …sceptre). The sainted Amanda Vickery also writes about women in history, but her series on the eighteenth-century home last year was far more inclusive – and actually far more insightful – for focusing on an arguably female-dominated space rather than on one 50% of society to the exclusion of the other (which is, ironically, exactly the kind of short-sightedness a series like this is trying to go against).

Charles II of England in his coronation robes

The Man: Charles II

Had the first episode of History for Girls – ‘At Court’ – looked simultaneously at king’s mistresses, king’s courtiers and king’s womanizing major poet, I think Lucy W would have been onto a winner – and it would have told us a lot about women in the period. Instead, there is no mention of the Earl of Rochester and his notoriously rakish companions beyond a bit of giggling at the cast-list for Sodom (King Bolloxinian and Cuntigratia, his queen; Clytoris, the maid of honour, &c) in the first episode.

The second episode does look at marriage, and the increased female freedom to choose one’s own husband in evidence during this period; however, there’s nothing about how that freedom might come with certain societal obligations to choose a sober and sensible fellow to espouse. Given that this was the age of the ‘King of Bling‘, whose court frequently witnessed happenings such as the one in the local tavern described by Pepys – Sir Charles Sedley, in the company of a group of friends, ‘took a glass of wine and washed his prick in it, and then drank it off’ in front of a large crowd – it seems silly to ignore the potential implications for women and their societal freedoms. There’s no mention of body parts being dipped in wine and Charles’ own sanction of such behaviour, at all.

Which is a shame, because Worsley does talk about the notorious image of Barbara Villiers (Chief Mistress) with her illegitimate son, posing as the Virgin Mary. Linking the two up through the common appropriation of religious imagery for lewd purposes would have been an interesting move. Instead, we get Barbara V as a strikingly ‘modern’ woman, who has power over the king (but no particular political interest in him) because she’s Mistress Number One. How liberating. How strikingly different from every other period of history, ever.

I really don’t know why otherwise shrewd historians are so mad on the old ‘modern’ chestnut – it also irked me at the Portrait Gallery’s First Actresses exhibition: this eternal language of ‘celebrity’ and ‘PR’ and ‘spin-doctoring’ that either existed in the past (in which case it’s not truly ‘modern’), or it didn’t (in which case your theory is manipulating the facts and distorting our view of the past).

‘Women in this period have a surprisingly modern attitude’, she tells us. So we’re all just the same really, it’s the sisterhood whatever era it’s in, why can’t we all just get along. OK, I get what she’s trying to say: it wasn’t all lead on your face and weird stuff on your nipples to make them look darker (which you learn all about, and that’s quite fun): there’s also something ACCESSIBLE about the past.

Nell Gwynn, rival to Barbara V

Nell Gwynn, one of Charles II's most famous mistresses

But, again, pretty much every period in history is claimed as ‘a point where things start getting modern’. Cardinal Wolsey was the first spin doctor; Anne Boleyn was the first feminist; Fanny Hill was the first businesswoman – isn’t it time we scrapped this cliche and started maybe thinking about ‘modernity’ as a fairly arbitrary concept? It’s an artificial divide intended to make stuff ‘relevant’, which I get, but perhaps it might have been more interesting to think about how aspects of this period’s thinking about women still prevail today than how Nell Gwynn was just like a seventeenth century Angelina Jolie. There’s an implied value judgement here, too: sure, women now rarely have to wear the ‘scold’s bridle’ (which we also learn about), but that’s not to say that everything else is fine and dandy.

I mean, on one level, good on Lucy for trying to make the past accessible at all: it should come as no surprise to Alphabet readers that I have drawn up several blueprints for a t-shirt with Samuel Richardson’s face on it accompanied by the strapline ‘BUT MADAM!’, so I suspect I am not the target audience for the whole accessible-history thing. Horse, gate, bolted &c. But on another level, it is a bit reductive. Which brings me on to my last big gripe: the dressing up.

Now, I love a bit of dressing up, me, but I didn’t really see how necessary this was – you don’t catch Simon Schama trying on fake eighteenth century calves (like padded bras, but for men concerned about their muscular shortcomings being exposed by contemporary fashions for breeches). Kinda wish you did, mind, but Lucy seems to go through an endless stream of minor sartorial humiliations for most of this programme, mostly whilst talking to various Esteemed Academics. I don’t have an intrinsic problem with it, but it did make her look a bit infantile, and I kind of wish it hadn’t.

So, in conclusion: nice bit of fun for a Monday night; enjoyed the shout-out to green-sickness; worth watching if you’re interested in historical bosoms. As far as any deeper insight goes, it’s not really up to scratch, and I wish it had been.

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