A Damned Mob of Scribbling Women!


nathanielhawthorneNathaniel Hawthorne, writing from Britain to his publisher in 1855:

America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash–and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.  What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of the ‘Lamplighter,’ and other books neither better nor worse?–worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the 100,000.

David Starkey, speaking in Britain in 2009 about the launch of a TV show based on his biography of Henry VIII (h/t to reader S.C.):

In an interview with the Radio Times, out today, Dr Starkey said: “One of the great problems has been that Henry, in a sense, has been absorbed by his wives. Which is bizarre.

“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.”

He said that in his new series, Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant, “we’re trying to say, ‘Hang on a minute, Henry is centre stage.’

“This is Henry – wives appear simply to explain or complicate the story of Henry. This is his development, his psychology and, above all, why he matters.”

Prominent female authors to write about Henry VIII and the Tudors include Lady Antonia Fraser, whose titles include the best-selling account The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Alison Weir, who wrote a book bearing the same title; and Jessie Childs, author of the prize-winning Henry VIII’s Last Victim.


A tragically neglected figure!

Hillarious!  This a man who is after all selling pop history, with the aid of a prime time TV show (not to mention a massive publicity rollout) to help him out.  Quite frankly, authors of trade press bios of kings and queens (especially those with companion TV shows!) really shouldn’t be in the business of complaining that the other authors of trade press bios of kings and queens are writing just trashy celebutainment.  Besides, who on Earth actually believes that Henry VIII is a neglected, overlooked figure in British history?  (What a daring move to argue that a King of England was an important figure!  “Centre stage” even!  How will he ever pull it off?)

People who complain that other people are only interested in Henry VIII because of his wives are like the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestants (or the nineteenth and twentieth century Protestant historians) who insisted that Henry’s break with the Church had nothing to do with all of those wives and was instead about much, much, much more highminded and important constitutional and theological issues.  Sex had nothing to do with it!  Women had nothing to do with it!  Nothing nothing nothing at all!

But–the man has books to sell, and I understand that–really I do!  And this is exactly how a man who wants to sell books gets the job done:

Controversy has been handmaiden to the 63-year-old academic ever since he ridiculed George Austin, Archdeacon of York, for “his fatness, his smugness, his pomposity” on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, earning Starkey the epithet “the rudest man in Britain”.

His reckoning that the title was worth £100,000 a year proved a gross underestimate. The rewards of playing what he termed an “all-purpose media tart” would have won Henry VIII’s respect after Starkey signed a £2m contract with Channel 4 in 2002, paving the way for a career as one of the highest paid television presenters in Britain.

These days the council estate boy from Cumbria glides in a chauffeured limousine between his London pied-à-terre in Highbury Hill and his Georgian house in Barham, near Canterbury in Kent, which he shares with James Brown, his boyfriend of 15 years. With wisteria over the door and dogs in the drive, Starkey leads the life of a country squire.

Just to prove that he has not lost his touch, last year Starkey compared the Queen to an uneducated “housewife” who shared Hermann Goering’s impulse to reach for his revolver when he heard the word culture.

Starkey really could have taught Hawthorne a thing or two.  Insulting your rivals privately doesn’t move product, Nate.  Take a page out of Starkey’s (rather lightweight) book!

UPDATE, later this morning:  Janice Liedl has an interesting analysis of Starkey’s psychohistory of Henry here.  Guess what?  It’s all mother’s fault. 

UPDATE II:  Interestingly, Clio Bluestocking reports on a similar issue she faced while leading a discussion of Catherine Clinton’s Mrs. Lincoln:  A Life (2009) at her college.  She then follows up with an interesting follow-up post on “‘Truth’ and History.”

12 thoughts on “A Damned Mob of Scribbling Women!

  1. David Starkey used to be a scholar. Now he’s nothing but a shill as my recent blogging of his attempt to suggest that Henry was corrupted by his mother’s feminizing influence to become an “emotional incontinent” — I kid you not!: http://blog.jliedl.ca/?p=156

    If you want a decent and thoughtful popularizer of English history, turn to John Guy who doesn’t seem threatened by the thought of women as either his peers or subjects of his research.


  2. Janice–I’m sorry I missed your post! I’ll include a link in my post above. I saw other articles in which he called Henry an “emotional incontinent” because of the influence of women in his early life. Some writers have suggested that Starkey feels an extraordinary kinship with Henry because he too was raised by his mother.

    But–as you can probably guess–I can’t get that excited about it because I just can’t take him seriously! (And you have to admit that it’s pretty funny that he called an Archdeacon fat, smug, and pompous.) He’s a genius at publicity and self-promotion, but he looks like a terribly, terribly boring historian.


  3. Maybe if Henry hadn’t bothered to be so obsessed with his many wives, we wouldn’t have to be so interested in their lives. Blaming it on Mommy is an interesting attempt to try to shift the blame for crazy philandering back to the women again.

    Yet another “revolutionary” examination I’m all too happy to pass on 😛


  4. OH, poor David Starkey. Fighting off all the women. . . Self-promotion is sometimes effective (for men not women — can you imagine a rotund 63 year old woman getting any attention from any media?) Sigh. When he did his TV series on Elizabeth, my husband kept watching to see if he would tell a joke. He didn’t, ever.


  5. This is what I tell my students all the time: Compared with ‘Enery, theologically speaking, guys like Luther, Calvin, and even Zwingli, were just, guys, really, or maybe even popularizers. Its about time the poor guy starts getting written back into English history


  6. Susan–good point about the privilege that Starkey enjoys that would not be extended to a female peer. I can just imagine the amazing press coverage that a middle-aged woman would get complaining about the male-dominated historiography in her field! I’m sure there would be zero lead articles in the Telegraph! And I’m also sure that whatever notice people took, it would include lots of comments from graduate students taking her to task about her “tone” and her “language” when criticizing Great (Male) Historians!


  7. “Unhappy marriages”?! Marriages that end with wives heads rolling might be called a little more than “unhappy” without fear of hyperbole. I’m not a historian of anything, but I understood there was something political about Henry’s offing of his wives. Not very feminine of him either.

    (Obviously, I’m catching up on old posts historiann!)


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