history is a soap opera

because i know — or strongly suspect — that there are at least three excellent historians who happen to be female who glance at this blog now and then, i thought y’all might be interested in this link i saw on the guardian this morning. according to david starkey, women historians turn history into a soap opera. our work is substandard and we take emphasis off the real movers and shakers who are, clearly, powerful white men. i wish i were mocking his argument by making it sound stupider than it is but, sadly, i’m not.

honestly, the first thing i thought when i read this — other than, “wow, he really is as much of a jerk as he sounds in his books” which i’ve never been able to read although i have tried — was, “but, mr. starkey sir, history is often a soap opera all on its own. it needs no help from anyone of any gender.” i mean, seriously. i spend about half to three-quarters of my time these days considering the situation of a bunch of incarcerated (for a wide variety of reasons spanning the range from murder to being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong name) 18-30 year old men who voluntarily gave up washing, clothes, and, a few of them, eating in order to prove a point. to prove a point. and they kept at it even when it was blindingly obvious to the passing idiot on the street that they wouldn’t win! there was no hope in hell of them winning! but they did it anyway! you cannot make shit like this up!

and, really, any historian of tudor england has no room to argue about soap operas. whether you centre-stage henry or his wives, the whole thing is just one great big proto-episode of coronation street. personally, i think part of starkey’s miff comes from the fact that he pouted loudly and publicly about the lack of historical accuracy of the tudors and nobody cared.

he had some good points. the screenwriters combined characters, compressed time, simplified events, simplified character — all on a fairly minor level but enough to be a bit disconcerting if you suddenly realise that three different people have suddenly become the same person. or even if you happen to think that anyone who really behaved with the complete lack of political know-how thomas more (jeremy northam) displays in the series would have been lucky to survive a fortnight, let alone years. but the bones of the events are there and, given the nature of the televisual universe, i think starkey’s pet subject got off lightly. would he have been happier had it gotten the deadwood treatment? more historically accurate, yes; probably fewer sales for his books, though, which did get a contact “high” off the series, as did several other well-known tudor historians, at least one of whom is (gasp!) female. (gosh. what will we do.) in any case, not so many people are going to rush out to buy pop histories — which are what he writes, lets face it, and rather argumentatively in my opinion — having been shown henry unshaven, rarely washed, rarely in court dress, aggressive, acquisitive, egotistic, self-centred, in a grubby, ill-lit, rubbish-filled castle populated largely by people who look about ten times worse than he does.

but, if nothing else, at this point in time, quibbles about female historians and the “damage” we do to “real” history are ridiculous. i don’t think anyone’s arguing seriously that henry is unimportant or that work on him is being hurt by work done on his wives — or on more or suffolk or anyone else in his court. how can you really seriously set your face against a broader reconstruction of events? and it isn’t like any of this is taking his job away from him — i’m pretty sure that, unfortunately enough, his reputation and his ability to do multi-part bbc documentaries more or less on demand is pretty solid. 
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One thought on “history is a soap opera

  1. great post! all i can say is, wow. i can’t believe that someone would say that it was all about white men in Europe up until the “last five minutes.” apparently he forgot about the Ottoman Empire or influences from the East. and since when did historians, who happen to be female, need to justify their work because they are female? i mean, come on, didn’t we pass this phase already and move past the ‘great white man history’ with the social and cultural turns? someone really needs to get his knickers out of a twist. the sad thing is, people will actually listen to him.

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