Bluestocking Interviews Bettany Hughes

Editor Rebecca Gregory and Deputy Editor Yasmin Haji-Hassan

A comfortable, lived-in house in west London; two children playing at the piano; a study full of books; and a cat curled on the bed… we couldn’t have hoped for a more relaxed and genuine environment in which to conduct our interview. After a hibiscus tea and a good chat about the mundane, we soon realised that the pre-prepared questions would be thrown out the metaphorical window and that this would be one discussion about the integral role that women have played in history that we would be unlikely to forget. Deputy Editor Yasmin Haji-Hassan reports on our meeting with Bettany Hughes – Oxford graduate, broadcasting historian, academic and mother – on her current historical work, her interest in Bluestocking and her experience of studying the women of the past in a man’s world.
Rebecca Gregory, Editor

After a busy day recording a segment of her new Radio 4 show, Forbidden Families, Bettany Hughes gives Bluestocking all the inside details on what will prove to be a fascinating series. The show is based on the lives of three remarkable yet relatively unknown women, who sacrificed everything for their families. There is the 9th century Frankish Duchess Duoda, whose son was kidnapped by her husband for ‘safe keeping’ during the conflicts of King Louis I’s reign. Traumatised by this enforced absence, she wrote The Book of William; a collection of letters giving motherly advice in absentia, as well as word games and the timetables. She died 2 years later; a woman understudied and underappreciated in the academic world. Then there is Anne Askew, the first and only woman to be tortured in the infamous Tower of London before being burned at the stake. Finally Lady Brilliana Harley, a parliamentarian marooned in Royalist territory in the 17th century, who later died after an extended siege; again, a woman who strove to be an orthodox mother and wife, but was prevented by circumstances, and forced to fight for her family. Indeed, it is this empathy and sensitivity to these forgotten voices which marks Bettany Hughes as a true historian.

What has influenced her to take this path? Bettany admits that during her studies in the mid 1980s at Oxford, there were very few historians who she felt she could relate to. Aside from Antonia Fraser, she adds that ‘there was no hint that gender studies was of any relevance, it was all very new’. When researching articles for her book on Socrates, she was struck by how ‘this was not an apartheid societ’; both men and women were of importance and in regular communication; and as such, she included female inhabitants of Ancient Greece in what would ordinarily seem to be a male-focussed study. Yet, there is a distinct disparity in coverage of female history. With her second book on Helen of Troy, she was again taken aback by how this potentially vast field was neglected by so many academics. Ultimately, there is a gap and is by no means filled today.

It is peculiar how women’s studies have been placed in a metaphorical box; separate at times from mainstream history. Bettany astutely points out that when women are studied in history, they are often categorised in emotional terms. On the one hand, some critics vehemently rejected her innovative findings on Helen of Troy, whereas on the other side feminists were hailing her as the epitome of pure goodness and ahead of her time. Women have had labels placed upon them; mother, housekeeper, wife, which are used to dismiss them as minor figures in history. It has taken years to get the very notion of mother love to be commissioned as a viable topic to study. Having specialised in periods ranging from the late Bronze Age in 3,500bc, Bettany concludes that we are still undergoing the sexual revolution; ‘it is not as though we are now living in a completely equal world.’

In light of all of this, I ask her if she is taken seriously in the academic world. The answer given is yes and no. Bettany does not regard herself as a full time academic; her talents are extensive, ranging from television and radio broadcaster, to writer and lecturer. Press reaction to her latest works has been incredibly positive; though some have focussed more on her attire than the content of her programmes or books and Bettany jokes about attempts by the media to ‘sex up’ her image in order to belittle her work. But can we truly consider Bettany Hughes as the Nigella Lawson of the ancient history world? Somehow, I doubt sheÕd take kindly to the analogy.

Bettany’s diverse career is one which seems to suite her perfectly; she adds ‘I am constantly busy, but in a good way.’ This year, she has told Bluestocking exclusively that she will begin working on a new Channel 4 series called Mother Love, a 4 hour documentary which will look at how women in the past dealt with issues of child rearing and letting go of their offspring. She of course began her historical career with a BA in Ancient and Modern History and it was only during her PhD that she decided that broadcasting was a valid way for her to research and communicate her ideas to a larger medium of people. She insists that chapters of her works like ‘Helen of Troy’ are short and palatable to all readers, as well as enjoying the focus on the story behind these highly ambiguous figures.

Intrinsically, Bettany endeavours to create a holistic view of women in history, through portraying their character without romanticising their achievements. For her there is now a real demand for information concerning women’s studies, and so projects like Bluestocking which attempt to map their creative works can only be a good thing. ‘Women want to understand their past; it is not a case of simply imposing their viewpoint of history, because they had a part in shaping it’.

Yasmin Haji-Hassan, Deputy Editor

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