Historian is a household name

Prof Amanda Vickery, presenter of BBC2's At Home With The Georgians (left) and author of Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England
Prof Amanda Vickery, presenter of BBC2's At Home With The Georgians (left) and author of Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England

OFF the Shelf is dedicating a whole extended weekend to the subject of history after noting that author events with historians, talks and local history walks had proved one of the most popular elements of the annual literary festival.

It chimes with a boom in history programmes on TV, one of the latest being At Home with the Georgians presented by Amanda Vickery.

“In my career I have lived through two periods where history has been considered the new rock ‘n’ roll,” she says. “At the moment it is a really good time for history. It has held up pretty well as a GCSE subject and it’s evenly balanced between boys and girls.

“It’s also pretty balanced at A-level and at university there is only a small distinction with more females but nothing like, say, engineering for men or English Lit for females. History has held its popularity.

“Conventional wisdom is that history on TV appeals more to men but once you strip out military history it’s pretty even.”

With a subject matter described as “sex, scandal and soft furnishings”, the programme aimed for a broad appeal.

“What we were trying to do with the series was square the circle of the core history audience and the female costume drama following along with the popularity of houses and property shows and see if history could find a new audience,” explains Vickery.

One of the objectives of the original book on which the series was based was to show that the domestic environment was not merely the preserve of women but equally important to menfolk.

“Evidence to show that proved elusive. I thought it would be easy but men only talked about their domestic situation if their house burned down. Married men were the people I found the most terse on the subject,” she continues.

“That’s why I turned to bachelors and widowers because they had to had to talk about what they lacked or else courtship is when it is on the agenda.”

Vickery was commissioned to make her first television series – and thus acquire celebrity status – after making her mark on radio..

“I would not particularly say I sought celebrity,” she says, “but one thing is that it is nice to have a large audience.

“Some authors’ books sell to 300 people whereas seven million people heard Voices from the Old Bailey (her Radio 4 series last year of dramatised 18th century court cases).

The newly-appointed Professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary College, University of London, embraces new media to spread the word with her own website and pronouncements via Twitter. Do fellow historians approve?

“I might have been frowned upon in different generations of academia but not now,” she insisted.

“A number of students have come to the university because they have seen me on telly.

“Queen Mary have a number of public intellectuals such as Lisa Jardine, which would suggest they like media exposure.”

She believes it is merely following the pattern of embracing the new which is seen in history.

“The 18th century saw an explosion of public space and mastering of technology and women were the mistresses of letter-writing,” she points out.

“I enjoy being across different platforms. Twitter is a challenge, though, to fit the format and convey quite complex things in a limited number of words.”

That said, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England involved old-fashioned research in dusty archives – more than 60 of them around the country which helps to explain why her second book came 10 years after her first.

“It makes a big difference to physically hold a document and feel the dust and look at the handwriting,” she believes.

“You could almost see the tears on the pages of Gertrude Savile’s diary from Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire which was an amazing bible of pain with its tiny handwriting and many crossings out.”

The television programme aimed to capture this sense of discovery. “The trouble is that many archives are in Portakabins on ring roads and not that photogenic, so we used an iPad to read some of the manuscripts in the actual house and so bring the world to life.

“History is an art as well as a science and the whole point is to breathe life into people from the past and to try and create flesh and blood 3D.”

The Georgians: An Intimate History with Amanda Vickery is at St George’s Church, Mappin Street, on Friday evening.