Grace Dent on Television: Harlots, Housewivs and Heroines - a 17th Century History for Girls, BBC4
David Starkey, your time is up. For restoring women to Restoration history, I love Dr Lucy
Once upon a time, history lessons were no place for girls. Thank you gods of telly for BBC4's Dr Lucy Worsley, vehemently shoving the "she" back into tales of yore. How I'd have loved this as a child. My GCSE Second World War lessons consisted of endless Pathé News footage of the British patriarchy, knees apart, testicles simmering with righteous glee, pondering the death of other men, with the odd perfunctory nod towards a Land Army filly moving spuds in a van from Burford to Chipping Norton.
Wasn't she lucky being allowed a go with the van keys? It took me decades to discover the Mitford sisters, Diana and Unity, infiltrating the inner circle of Hitler and chums. No wonder women love HBO's Game of Thrones, set in fictitious feminist yesteryore times when the womenfolk hear of a tribal smite, jump on a horse and stay firmly in the storyline. I panted with joy on hearing of Dr Lucy's new TV venture Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: a 17th Century History for Girls, which began this week with a swing through the reign of King Charles II and his retinue of lovers.
According to CBBC's Horrible Histories, Charles was "the king of bling... who brought back partying". You can see the song on YouTube if you're in the market to see Mathew Baynton's calves filling a pair of Restoration-era tights, which as a serious historian, I can assure you, reader, I am not. In episode one, Dr Lucy examines Charles II's return from France. One of the great things about France that Charles had learned, was that they were intensely relaxed about affairs and mistresses. In fact, one wife was considered indolent and unambitious. One had one's missus back in the house for breeding and strategic respectability purposes, then other fun ones dotted about Paris for their wit, wile, tits and intelligence. How very modern.
Charles II arrived back in London, after the displacement of that glum-faced bore Oliver Cromwell, and duly filled his boots. Of course, the monarchy went on to behave like this for centuries, or at least until the 1990s when Princess Diana began spouting off. They branded Diana, and still do, an hysterical, diva-ish and paranoid woman, but Diana wasn't paranoid about Camilla and the royal unspoken code of marriage, she was absolutely slap, bang on. In this week's episode, Dr Lucy focused on the concept of the 17th-century "Career Mistress": Barbara Villiers, Nell Gwyn, Louise de Kérouaille and other clever, witty, politically minded and wily strumpets who rinsed Charles of houses, titles and carved independent wealth of their own.
Was this, Lucy asks, simply male exploitation by another name? Or was it Britain's first instance of women carving power, financial strength and celebrity on their terms? We saw a map of Whitehall Palace and the various luxury apartments in which all the various women lived, sometimes only a few hundred metres away from each other – all on his payroll, elevated from commoner to countess on account of services rendered. What a crock of delightful crap the aristocracy is built on. I'm sure we'd have more shootings behind the Palace at dawn if the top brass weren't so flipping affable. Whoever is doing House of Windsor Jubilee PR right now has got me brain-addled that Harry is a Titian-haired St Francis of Assisi, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge is one of the most stylish women on the planet, and Prince Charles is a comic genius.
My heart went out to any aristos watching the show, the penny slowly dropping that their glorious title stemmed not from being "chosen by God" but from their female ancestor being a red-hot Restoration-era ride. With episode one of the series focusing largely on career-minded "harlots", the show is deliciously smutty at times, but Dr Lucy Worsley can cope with this ably.
I loved it when Dr Lucy stomped into some drably lit historical vaults, sat down with a male historian, delved into the diaries of Samuel Pepys, and made him linger over a confession that one of Charles II's women was so awesomely charismatic that Pepys "made an emission" in his trousers in a crowded room just from perusing her for too long. "You're blushing," Dr Lucy said. "Yes," said the historian, lamenting possibly a gentler time when David Starkey would pitch up whiffing of mothballs and misogyny to whitewash women from time as they "turn history into a soap opera". Oh, damn us wretched fillies with our bold insistence that from the beginning of human existence, we were 50 per cent of the population, too. Of course, Starkey's rantings abut "the feminisation of history" have less teeth now that his most recognisable job is as Question Time's number one go-to comedy blow-hard. While Dr Lucy is making shows I want to watch, Starkey is paid to spout off opinions in public that are usually only typed anonymously with two fingers into internet comment boxes by hairy-shouldered, box-bedroom, net-warriors from Crewe. More power to Dr Lucy, Mary Beard and Bettany Hughes. But then I would say that, as I'm a bloody woman.
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