Sexed-up television histories, it seems, are just for girls. Histories, that is, that embellish and dwell on human relationships, that exalt the tactile thrill of the inadvertent touch, that are attentive to the colour a frisson of desire can add to the way we tell stories. Or so a recent article in The Spectator by James Delingpole would have us believe. The article, which was subsequently amended to remove some of its more outlandish claims, put forward some quite brazen generalisations about how men and women approach the past. ‘Boys’, the author postulates, ‘being of a more trainspotterish disposition’ would be more critical of the recent ITV series Victoria, for they are ‘more jealous of their facts and period detail’.
The critical response to the unamended article from historians on Twitter was swift and brutal. This was followed by a more critical approach: Delingpole is a provocateur, it was claimed, and the academic community should not engage with his trolling. But as other historians pointed out, Delingpole’s view that women’s interests are less intellectually rigorous and factually oriented than men’s are less unusual than we might hope. My own view, and that of others, is that we have a responsibility to attack sexism as and where we find it. Beyond this, the article raises two issues for historians interested in the public representation of the past. First, and perhaps less controversially, that the purpose of popular portrayals of prominent figures is to inform as much as to intrigue and entertain. Second, that women are driving the ‘MillsandBoonification of history’ while men are the dispassionate stewards of historical fact.
It is impossible to lay the sexism of the article to one side. The dichotomy between men and women trespasses from their representation of history and into their representation of characters. Rufus Sewell ‘smoulders so tastefully’ as Lord Melbourne (he acts) while Jenna Coleman ‘looks gorgeous’ as Victoria (she exists). Moreover, a collective sigh surely arose at the declaration that the author ‘blamed the ongoing feminisation of culture’ for the direction of the series. This feminisation, the author suggests, drives an ‘irresponsible’ history. But if we scale out from the article to examine the landscape of historical dramas more broadly, can we really say that this attentiveness to desire and romance is a peculiarly feminine trait? Are women responsible for driving men off the sofa on a Sunday night? The author makes it clear that they are – and not to bed with a serious historical tome, either – rather, he argues, men are driven off the sofa by romantic dramas to ‘cavort with rent boys’.
The briefest of journeys through films situated in the (sometimes mythical) past suggests that men happily sex up their representations: Troy (dir. Wolfgang Petersen); Pearl Harbor (dir. Michael Bay); Braveheart (dir. Mel Gibson). Male directors and writers evidently find it just as easy to elaborate, extemporise and appeal to emotion. When men take the reins they are inclined to emphasise the human relationships that underpin events regardless of whether they envisage a male or female audience. In dramas emotions often do the work of explaining complex historical convergences. Does it matter if these desires are fictitious, that it is unlikely that Queen Victoria and Lord Melbourne ever exchanged looks charged with sexual intent? While this might grate for historians (we are, after all, ‘for History’), we must first be wary of doing a disservice to viewers by infantilising them as an uncritical public.
My own view is that the best historical dramas do inform as they entertain. As historians are only too aware, and at the risk of being platitudinous, the truth of history is often more scandalous and more intriguing than dramas allow. It is a shame that Victoria marginalises the genuine political and social tensions in favour of a fabricated romance. But laying the blame for this at women’s feet is simply laughable to today’s historians. Rather, Delingpole’s piece brings to mind the anxiety raised by novel reading in the eighteenth century or the consternation over the proliferation of girls’ magazines in early twentieth century Britain. A culture that indulges fictive representations of lust is often considered risky and threatening. As for his claim that ‘mostly men … value history’? Just imagine how he’d react if he found out that some women not only value it, we also teach it.
Sarah Crook is the Cox Fellow in History at New College, Oxford. She completed her PhD on mothers and depression in post-war Britain at Queen Mary, University of London in September 2016.