Below stairs at Kensington Palace, Lucy Worsley is making tea in a tiny staff kitchen. (She may be Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, but the job doesn’t come with a lady-in-waiting.) She’s got an idea of where we can do our interview, and leads Weekend upstairs into a large, somewhat mildewed and completely empty room.
‘This was Queen Victoria’s bedroom,’ explains Worsley, fetching two fold-out chairs for us to perch on. ‘When she was 18 years and three weeks old, Victoria went to bed in this room a princess, and when she woke up the next morning, she was Queen.’
Despite spending her working life in such surroundings, the 45-year-old still gets “a sizzle” out of being on the spot where the world shifted a little on its axis. It’s the same infectious enthusiasm that’s in evidence in her hugely successful second career as a TV historian, fronting shows like A Very British Murder, American History’s Biggest Fibs Doors and Lucy Worsley’s Nights at the Opera.
Many of these programmes have paid special attention to the role of women in history, including a BBC One documentary about the Suffragettes. She also has a profitable sideline writing historical fiction for young girls, so is ideally placed to provide the foreword to Women: Our History, an impressive, lavishly illustrated new book designed to help ensure that, in Worsley’s words, half the human race is ‘no longer buried in the footnotes’ of our collective story.
It is, she says, a timely publication. ‘There’s definitely a movement happening, and it’s long overdue. It’s really exciting that history is not just about dead white men. But what bothers me is whether it’s happening out there, in real life, outside the media bubble. Is there equal pay for equal work? Are there maternity rights? I don’t want to be complacent.’
It’s a common mistake, she adds, to assume that progress is a one-way street. ‘A lot of history has been written that way because historians are trying to make us feel good about ourselves. But history doesn’t go in straight lines, it goes in curved lines. And sometimes things get better, but often they go backwards as well. There are so many things happening in the world right now, I don’t think we can take our self-defined progress for granted. I feel quite strongly about this, as you can tell.’
In the book, Worsley also cautions against viewing women as either victims or heroes. ‘People often say to me, “Oh, you’ll like this person, she’s a strong woman”. And I think, oh no, not another strong woman!’ She rolls her eyes. ‘All we ever hear about are strong women. Let’s hear about some weak and useless ones! You can’t be a strong role model all the time.’
What has been her personal experience of sexism? Are there times when she’s had to fight harder, be smarter, because she’s a woman?
‘I’ve had the other experience,’ she says. ‘I’m the happy recipient of positive discrimination. I started working in television because the BBC were actively looking for female historians; because they knew that was what the world was going to expect of them. I was very lucky. I was in a group with Mary Beard and Amanda Vickery and some others. I know that was part of the reason I got the chance, and I’m very grateful for that. I’ll accept that with pride and pleasure.’
Even so, she’s had her battles – including an enjoyable spat with David Starkey, whose lofty dismissal of ‘feminised’ history’ fronted by ‘pretty’ presenters prompted her rather brilliant response: ‘If it wasn’t insulting and degrading to judge historians by their looks, I would point out that Dr Starkey looks like a cross owl.’ (They’ve since made up, and even worked together. ‘My feud with David Starkey is a bit of a figment of journalists’ imaginations,’ she says.)
She’s wary of social media, she admits. ‘One of the reasons I admire Mary Beard is she’s so combative. She takes people straight on. If you diss her, she’s going to come back at you. But I don’t want to spend my time arguing with faceless people on Twitter. I don’t go looking for trouble.’
Worsley was born in Reading in 1973. She credits her mother with making her a good feminist, but her father, a geology professor, was less successful in his attempt at raising a scientist. ‘I started doing biology, chemistry and maths A-levels to please him, but after a term I decided to change to history.’ The subject had always been her passion, fired by a childhood love of Jean Plaidy’s historical novels. ‘I had to go and tell him, and he said the words he’s never been allowed to forget: “If you do history, you will be cleaning toilets for a living, my girl.” So I’m very pleased not to be. Although, thinking about it, I do spend quite a lot of time talking about toilets.’
She left Oxford with a First in Ancient and Modern History (though she insists she’s ‘a bookworm, rather than clever –nobody likes a clever-clogs’) and worked as a curator at various heritage properties, before landing the job at Historic Royal Palaces, responsible for maintaining Kensington, Hampton Court and the Tower of London, among others. (For her services to history and heritage, she was awarded the OBE in last year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours).
When telly came calling, it felt like a natural extension of the day job. ‘It’s just talking about history in a slightly different way,’ she shrugs.
One notable feature of her TV shows is her enthusiasm for rummaging around in the dressing-up box: she’s never shy of popping on a mob-cap or a bustle in order to help sell the story. ‘There are two reasons I do that,’ she says. ‘One is complete narcissism and showing off, obviously. But I’m very happy to use whatever tools are available to compete with shopping, or football, or whatever the competition is. I’ll use whatever means I can to grab people’s attention for history.’
One place she won’t be indulging her passion for performance, though, is on the Strictly dancefloor, having signed a pre-nup before she married her husband, architect Mark Hines, promising never to do it.
That doesn’t seem very her at all, Weekend suggests: allowing a man to dictate what she can and can’t do. ‘It was very short and just had the one clause, that I’d never do Strictly,’ she explains. ‘I respect the contract. We did come up with a workaround, in which I got to dance with Len Goodman [for 2104’s Cheek to Cheek: An Intimate History of Dance]. It was brilliant. But it just made me want to do Strictly even more…’
Despite this urge to get a spraytan and wow the nation with her cha-cha-cha – and the fact she once described her dream job as being a chorus girl in a West End musical – Worsley insists she’s naturally shy and introverted by nature. ‘The thing some people don’t get is that introverts are perfectly capable of coming out and presenting a television programme,’ she says. ‘I’m living proof of that. What I find hard is unscripted social interaction.’
Another thing she hasn’t let hold her back is a minor speech impediment, which affects her pronunciation of the letter ‘r’. ‘I went to see a speech therapist a few years ago, who told me the way to overcome it is by saying it right as many times as you’d already said it wrong in your life. I was 40 at the time! I said, “Actually I’m not going to bother”. The only reason I went is because we were making a series about the Romanovs and they wanted to call it Russia From Royalty to Revolution. I said, “Are you deliberately trolling me here?” To be honest, I’d never really noticed [her rhotacism] and it never bothered me until suddenly a million and one people wrote to me about it.’
For all the success and the honours and the dressing up and the dancing, Worsley remains, at heart, a hopeless history geek, as in love with the past as she was when she picked up her first Jean Plaidy. ‘I’m proud to be a geek,’ she says. ‘I was always a geek, and I’ve learned to embrace it. I used to be ashamed of it. But not any more.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, 14 February, 2019
(c) Waitrose Weekend