Are British academics too obsequious to write good royal history?

June 19, 1998

Monarchs have been shot, ridiculed, worshipped, even canonised, but they have not made much impact on academics. American and British historians are about to change that

British scholars often write better about foreign monarchs than they do about their own, argues Robert Baldock, history editor at Yale University Press. He says "a certain obsequiousness" seems to creep in when they write about the monarchy. "Even scholars who aren't hoping for a peerage regard the British institution as being somewhat sacrosanct," he says. "There are certain things they cannot say or get away with."

For that reason, foreign writers may offer more insights. While US biographer Kitty Kelley's controversial book on the royals was criticised for being scandal-mongering, Baldock suggests it had many interesting things to say. "The spirit of her book was tremendously refreshing because it didn't have the same reverential tone," he says.

While people assume books on royalty find a large market, Baldock says they do not automatically reach the best-seller lists. Americans treat royals as celebrities and rate them largely according to appearance and glamour, while the British prefer books on royalty to be about people, rather than ideas. Studies containing a serious argument about the monarchy as an institution, or its constitutional significance, often sell badly.

In this, public taste reflects changes in the way histories are written. Over the years, emphasis on political biography has given way, through social, economic and gender history, to a focus on the person of the monarch.

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